It can hardly get more Swiss than eating cheese fondue with a group of friends in a chalet after a day of winter-sports activities in the snow-covered mountains. This highly social activity of feasting together from a shared pot of bubbling melted cheese is as ubiquitous in Switzerland as chocolate and watches. But how did this practice originate?
The word “Fondue” is the feminine past participle of the French verb “fondre” (to melt). Used as a noun, it has become synonymous with a dish of cheese melted in white wine in a communal caquelon—an earthenware pot favored for its even heat and its ability to retain heat so that the meal can be enjoyed over a long period of time. The cheese is kept bubbling over a portable heat source (réchaud), such as a candle or spirit lamp, and traditionally eaten by dipping bread into the cheese using long-stemmed forks.
Today, you will readily find cheese fondue as an après-ski snack or meal on most mountain hut tables in Switzerland, as well as on the menu cards of Swiss restaurants in cities year-round. It originated, however, in the secluded mountain regions of Switzerland as a way for the Alpine farmers to utilize stale bread and hard cheese in the colder winter months, when access to fresh food was scarce. They found that if they melted the dried-out cheese in wine seasoned with garlic and herbs, they could make a meal of dipping their stale bread in the flavorful cheese mixture, which would allow the bread to soften. This practice of eating together from one pot over a warm cozy fire became a Swiss mountain winter tradition that eventually migrated down the slopes to the villages and towns below.
The History of Cheese Fondue
The first mention of such a dish dates back to antiquity, when Homer’s “Iliad” described a mixture of grated goat’s cheese, wine, and wheat flour melted over an open fire. The earliest known fondue recipe, however, came from a cookbook published in Zürich in 1699 entitled “Käss mit Wein zu kochen” (To cook cheese with wine), which called for grated or cut-up cheese to be melted in wine and eaten with bread pieces that were dipped in the mixture. The introduction of cornstarch to Switzerland in 1905 probably contributed to the popularity of cheese fondue by giving it a smoother and more stable consistency. But cheese fondue became truly popular in the 1930s, when the “Schweizerische Käseunion” (Swiss Cheese Union)—a cartel of cheese makers who set the price of milk, limited production, and restricted the types of cheeses Swiss producers could make—declared it the national dish of Switzerland, as a way of increasing cheese consumption. They also created pseudo-regional recipes as part of the “spiritual defense of Switzerland.” When rationing ended following World War II, the Swiss Cheese Union continued its marketing campaign, sending fondue sets to military regiments and event organizers across Switzerland, cementing cheese fondue as a symbol of Swiss unity. But fondue was unknown in America, the world’s largest cheese market, until 1964, when it was introduced at the Swiss Pavilion’s Alpine restaurant of the New York World’s Fair. This kicked off a food fad across the country that led the sweet-toothed Americans to create the first chocolate fondue. The term “fondue” has since been used to describe other dishes where food is dipped into a pot of hot liquid, including the French Fondue Bourguignonne (beef cubes cooked in hot oil) and Fondue Chinoise (thin slices of meat or vegetables cooked in hot bouillon), both served with a variety of dipping sauces.
Here in Switzerland, the Swiss Cheese Union continued to aggressively promote cheese fondue, and together with the advertising agency Gisler+Gisler in the 1950s, came up with the slogan “Fondue isch guet and git e gueti Luune” (Swiss German for “Fondue is good and gives a good mood”), which is now so well-known that it is simply referred to by its acronym, FIGUGEGL, that you will see displayed in restaurants that serve fondue in the Germanic region of Switzerland. Whether a testament to the power of a good advertising campaign, and/or to the appeal of the dish itself, the Swiss eat on average 1.3 kg of fondue per person per year. With an average portion measuring roughly 200 g per person, that translates to roughly six to fondue meals annually, keeping the dairy farmers and cheese producers of Switzerland very busy!
What Goes Into a Cheese Fondue?
As the blend of cheeses included in the fondue is entirely regional, there are nearly as many recipes as there are mountain villages. In the Appenzell region, cheese fondue consists mainly of Appenzell cheese, whereas in the region of Fribourg, the fondue is normally made with their creamy local cheese, Vacherin fribourgeois. Moitié-moitié (half-half) is a 50/50 blend of the mild and creamy Vacherin fribourgeois and the spicier Gruyère. In Valais, you will often see the addition of raclette cheese to your mixture of Vacherin and Gruyère and in canton Bern, Emmentaler is often part of the blend. In central Switzerland, Gruyére is mixed with Emmental and Sbrinz, whereas in the eastern parts of Switzerland, you are more likely to find Gruyère mixed with the more aromatic Appenzeller and Tilsiter. The cheese you choose to include is a matter of taste—if you like it mild and creamy, stick to Vacherin, Emmental, and raclette cheese, but if you enjoy the tangy bite of a stronger cheese, go heavier on the Appenzell and Gruyère varieties. And if you are unsure of your guests’ tastes, consider the moitié-moitié as a good middle-of-the-road choice.
With most cheese fondues, cubes of bread and potatoes are the most popular dipping items. Bearing in mind that an average fondue portion is roughly 200 g per person (60 g of which are fat) or about 800 calories, you can make fondue night a much healthier meal by adding “lighter and heart-healthier” dipping items, such as blanched broccoli, cauliflower, and asparagus; mushrooms; fruit pieces like apple slices, grapes, pineapple cubes, and my favorite, pear chunks—the combination of sweet and savory is simply divine! Basically, anything that goes with cheese and can stay on a fondue fork when dipped is fair game.
On the Side
As cheese fondue is a heavy meal, it is best served with a side of salad, crunchy vegetables, or pickled vegetables, such as peppers, gherkins, and pearl onions. The accompanying beverage is mostly commonly dry white wine (still or sparkling), but apple cider, apple juice (for kids), and black tea such as Earl Grey are also surprising good compliments. Some say that a side shot of Kirsch helps to digest the cheese, but a 2010 study conducted by gastroenterologists at the University of Zürich showed that the Kirsch actually causes the cheese to clump in the stomach, slowing digestion!Share