How could I talk about Swiss food without mentioning fondue? Technically, I didn’t have fondue during this last trip to Switzerland. The reason is probably quite surprising to most of my readers. Mainly, it’s not official fondue season. Sure, you can find it in some touristy places year round, but the Swiss don’t tend to eat fondue unless it’s colder out. Winter is prime fondue time. A burbling pot of molten cheese tastes best on a chilly day, anyway.
In the states, we’ve gotten some of the fondue craze, so we’re familiar with some of the different forms of fondue out there, especially chocolate fondue, served for dessert (or in my case, any old time). But, the Swiss eat several different kinds of fondue, some which you might not have experienced before.
There’s the classic cheese fondue which typically includes the hard Gruyere cheese mixed with the softer Emmental or Appenzeller. It’s melted and mixed with wine or kirsch and served over a flame in an earthenware pot, like this one, which Chari and Chris brought back for me one year.
A brief intro to fondue pots: they come in several materials. For cheese, look for earthenware, which is traditional. But, you can’t make chocolate or meat fondue in it. For that, you need the metal kind, with the top tray that lets you rest your fork in it. Technically, there are different forks for the types of fondues, with the bread one having 3 tines, and the meat ones having 2 tines. Although some fondue pots are electric (and probably the best for beginners and occasional users, since they are easy, Teflon coated and therefore easy to clean, and can be used for all forms of fondue), most use sterno fuel, which can be purchased in liquid or little gel pots.
I prefer the pots of gel, which are single use and have less mess. I found the gel pots at Crate and Barrel here in the states at a really good price, 3 pots for under $5, which seemed like the best deal around.
I learned that many Swiss don’t make the fondue from scratch but consider the boxed mixes perfectly satisfactory, and after trying a few myself, I have to agree that they’re fabulous. I took a few home in my luggage and was pleased when customs didn’t confiscate them. You can find some of these mixes in the States, but not all stores carry the authentic Swiss ones, which are superior. The American versions aren’t typically as good.
While most Americans will stick to dipping white bread in their cheese fondue, the Swiss will use a variety of veggies, in addition to their artesian loaf bread. I prefer lightly steamed mushrooms or boiled new potatoes, but cauliflower and carrots work great too. With all those veggies, it’s a healthy meal, isn’t it?
When you eat fondue, it’s a good idea to drink wine with it. According to the Swiss, it keeps the cheese from congealing in your stomach. Basically, it helps you digest the huge quantity of cheese you just ingested. Not sure about the medical basis to this, but it certainly tastes nice, when consumed in moderation, of course.
I haven’t yet tried it, but another popular way to do fondue is to cook meat in a metal fondue pot (different than the earthenware cheese one). Fondue chinoise is a pot of broth, and you dip various meats into the boiling broth to cook it, before you dip it in a selection of dipping sauces (ie. dill or curry). Fondue Bourguignonne is also a meat dish, but the cooking liquid is boiling oil. That one isn’t so kid friendly, or waistline friendly, if you ask me (Hey kids, let’s play around a vat of boiling oil!).
To make the traditional, homemade version of Swiss cheese fondue, here’s a basic recipe.
1 garlic clove, peeled and cut in half
½ lb grated Gruyere Cheese (approx 2 cups)
½ lb grated Emmental or Appenzeller cheese (approx 2 cups)
1 ½ cups dry white wine (Swiss Fendent is best but a Sauvingon Blanc or Chablis would work.) (For a stronger wine taste, go up to 2 cups, but you probably need more cornstarch to make the texture right in the end)
1 tbsp cornstarch
2 tsp kirsch (Swiss cherry liqueur)
a pinch of nutmeg
Use your fondue pot directly on your stovetop to prepare the mix. Before you get started, you might want to get the sterno going on your fondue setup wherever you’ll be eating. You’ll transfer the pot there when you’re done.
Rub the inside of your fondue pot with the garlic clove. Discard the rest or float in the mix. Your choice. The rub seasons it and keeps the cheese from sticking.
Next, over medium heat, get the wine to a simmer. (At this point, I’ve seen several recipes add a tablespoon of lemon juice. I cannot fathom why.)
Mix the cornstarch and kirsch in a bowl and set aside.
Here’s the tricky part. Slowly add the mixed cheeses and stir as you add, careful to avoid clumps. If it starts boiling, turn things down. No boiling allowed.
Once the cheese is melted, slowly add in the mixed kirsch and cornstarch. Everything should thicken shortly. Add your pinch of nutmeg to season. I’ve also seen white pepper used here as well. Some recipes have added powdered mustard, but I don’t think that sounds very nice.
Promptly remove the pot from the stovetop and transfer to your prepared sterno setup.
Make sure that you monitor the sterno’s heat to keep the cheese from boiling.
Dip your bread and veggies in the cheese and enjoy.