Fondue tonight

Circle the loved ones around a cheese-filled pot this new year

Cheese party!

Cheese party!

Photo by Bryce Allemann

Although we’re all familiar with the neon orange cheese-like product commonly used on movie-theater nachos, many people have not had the pleasure of trying the Swiss specialty of melted cheese, or fondue. Just as it had been popular in the 1970s, this very social dish has once again returned to prominence in America. Chances are there’s a fondue pot sitting dejected in your home’s appliance graveyard among waffle irons, Forman grills and electric bread makers. It’s now winter, and it’s time to dust it off.

Switzerland’s climate and locally produced foods that have made them experts when it comes to cheese fondue. Historically fresh fruits and vegetables were unavailable during the cold winter months in Switzerland, whereas cheeses made from summer’s milk were just becoming ripe to perfection. Sharing both the warmth and camaraderie of eating together around one pot of hot melted cheese was not only inviting, but also substantive.

In the 1970s, an open-mindedness in America about the cuisines and lifestyles of other cultures flourished. Since the price of gas, as well as international travel, was often prohibitive, hosts of modest means could entertain friends by bringing the flavors of various countries into their own dining rooms. Due also to the inflation of meat prices at the time, a simple shared meal of bread, wine and cheese made fondue perfect for small dinner parties. With the economy as it is now, it’s natural that fondue should become popular once again.

To make fondue, it helps to have a fondue pot, but it isn’t actually 100-percent necessary. Some finely crafted ceramic pots are available for more than $100, but for an item that many may only use once a year, this may be a bit steep. Another option is an electric fondue pot. With these you can often prepare your fondue recipe entirely at the table; the drawback is making sure no one trips on the cord. Electric fondue pots are typically either stainless steel and/or treated to be nonstick and can be purchased for anywhere between $30 and $50. The third, and cheapest, option is to just use a pot on the stove. If you have something like a hotplate that you can use to then keep the fondue warm on the table, that’s all you need, but be careful!

Fondue etiquette: It’s your party, and you can cry if you want to, but there’s no reason to burn your mouth while eating hot melted cheese. Here are some quick fondue tips and traditions. When invited to a fondue party, it is traditional to bring wine as a gift (sparkling apple cider is a good non-alcoholic substitute). Dry, crisp, white wines are traditional, but there is no reason that red cannot be enjoyed with melted cheese.

Around the pot, each person takes turns dipping his or her bread into the cheese; each is expected to mix and stir the cheese while dipping to keep it mixed and to prevent it from burning. Once you remove your dipped bread, tap it gently on the side of the pot so that excess cheese will fall off, then bring it to your own plate. You can then either use a regular fork to un-spear the cheese-coated bread onto your plate, or you can gently blow onto it until it is cool enough to eat. Try not to touch the metal fork with your lips or teeth. (And no double-dipping!)

When putting bread onto your fork, spear through the crust of the bread; otherwise it is likely to drop off into the pot. If your bread falls into the pot, you have to follow one of two traditions: You either have to kiss the person to your right (seating arrangements traditionally are by alternating couples), or, should that be too socially awkward, then you may instead owe the host a bottle of wine.

Melt that cheese.

Photo by Bryce Allemann

1 clove garlic
1 loaf French bread (hard-crusted is preferable)
1/2 pound Emmentaler cheese (rind removed)
1/2 pound Gruyere cheese (rind removed)
2 cups dry white wine
3 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons Kirsh (cherry brandy)
Nutmeg and paprika to taste

Measure out all ingredients in advance, then coarsely grate and mix the cheeses with the flour in a large bowl. Cut the loaf of bread into approximate one-inch cubes, leaving crust on each piece whenever possible. Cut garlic clove in half and rub inside fondue pot. Either in a pot on a stovetop, or in your electric fondue pot, heat 1 1/2 cups of the wine until just below boiling. Lower heat, add cheese a handful at a time and stir continually as it melts. If too thick, add more wine, if too thin, a little more flour. Once all cheese has melted, add lemon juice and Kirsh, stir, transfer to ceramic pot and/or to table. Garnish with nutmeg and paprika. Keep warm over a low heat, adjust as needed. Serves four.