Switzerland’s Best Fondue

By CHRISTINA PASSARIELLO

Size is not Switzerland’s main asset. If the country were a U.S. state, it would rank 42nd in size, right between West Virginia and Maryland. The drive between its two biggest cities, Zurich in the northeast and Geneva in the southwest corner, takes just three picturesque hours, past church steeples, rolling green hills and thousands of long-lashed cows. Homogeneity doesn’t rank high, either. A melting pot of cultures, Switzerland has 26 cantons and four languages jammed into its territory.

“Le Chalet”, in Gruyères, a classic cheese blend is served with potatoes and thick slices of bread.

But there are symbols that unite the Swiss— chocolate, watches, geopolitical neutrality and an astronomically priced currency. Chiefly, however, there is fondue. Bread chunks dipped in a pot of hot cheese, served in army barracks and at Sunday family dinners, has literally been a national dish since the 1930s.

It’s a pretty appealing dish to rally around— already excellent cheese turned to gooey, molten goodness over a burner or open flame. There’s a low-stakes challenge in spearing bits of crusty bread on sticks and swirling them into the mixture without losing the bounty. It’s one of the world’s great communal meals.

“It is said that eating from the same caquelon —or fondue pot— establishes friendships,” says Verena Lüthi, who runs the hillside chalet restaurant Auberge de Mont-Cornu, near Switzerland’s northern border with France, with her husband.

And while the Swiss eat it year-round, winter is a truly ideal time for fondue, whether you’re just off the ski slopes or dining out in the city.

Fondue means “melted” in French. Ever since people began preserving milk as cheese thousands of years ago, they have been melting it, says Isabelle Raboud-Schüle, curator at the Musée Gruérien, a regional culture museum in the fondue- heartland town of Bulle in the Fribourg region.

The first written recipes for dishes resembling modern fondue date back to 18th- century French and Belgian cookbooks, but they called for imported Gruyère cheese, she adds, thereby making fondue Swiss. (Two variations—chocolate fondue and beef fondue—are attributed to a Swiss chef in New York in the 1950s.)

In the 1930s, Switzerland wanted to promote cheese consumption at home. Through the distribution of fondue recipes, the Swiss Cheese Union advocated that the dish be eaten as often as possible, says Ms. Raboud- Schüle. It also happened to be a handy way to use up leftover scraps of bread and cheese.

Forget about that neutrality thing, though. Each region in Switzerland claims to have the best fondue formula based on local varieties of the two essential ingredients, cheese and wine, as well as other elements that get thrown in the mix. Around Fribourg, an area in western Switzerland that rises between two big lakes, I ate a pure Vacherin fondue, instead of the mix of cheeses that is common. As if a half pound of gooey cheese per person weren’t rich enough, near Neuchâtel it was served with a mountain of fresh cream on top. In the Valais region, an arc that runs along the French and Italian borders and home to the Matterhorn, the local fondue variety calls for a tomato coulis.

Restaurant “Au Vieux-Carouge”
Robert Huber for The Wall Street Journal

The Gruyères version has become dominant in recent decades. Often referred to as a moitié-moitié, or half-and-half, it mixes Gruyère and Vacherin cheeses (not necessarily in a 50-50 proportion) with white wine and garlic. Though it’s most common in the Fribourg region around the medieval town of Gruyères, the dish bubbles up in Geneva and Zurich, where transplants from Fribourg have set up shop.Still, many chefs are playing with the classic formula. Christophe Demierre, who runs a molecular-cuisine cooking school from his home kitchen in the Fribourg region, makes fondue as a mousse and a powder that are meant to be eaten individually. “There’s still a sense of sharing because it becomes a conversation topic,” he says from his kitchen.

Carlo Crisci, who runs two-star Michelin restaurant Le Cerf, north of Lausanne, cooked a cold fondue of small cheese balls in a hot potato soup for a special event. But he doesn’t serve his modern fondue at the restaurant. “You can’t really serve fondue in an elegant restaurant” because of the smell, he says. Meanwhile, Hervé This, a molecular-gastronomy academic, recommends adding a pinch of citric acid to emulsify the ingredients in fondue—a step that traditionalists balk at.

As with any dish that has such cultural significance, there are plenty of rules that come with eating fondue. The Swiss only condone drinking white wine or hot tea with their melted cheese—anything else is said to create an indigestible ball of cheese in the stomach. (The most egregious offense is drinking Coke or beer, but even water is frowned upon, Ms. Raboud-Schüle says.) Purists don’t approve of ordering a salad for some greens with all that dairy. But cured meats are okay. And whoever loses their bread in the fondue pot buys a round of drinks for the table.

After a few days of eating fondue in five Swiss cantons, I was ready to break all the rules. I wanted red wine. I wanted vegetables. But the upside was, I became a master at spotting standout fondue. Start with the bread: It should be crusty and flavorful. The cheese shouldn’t be runny, but should envelop the bread. There should be a hint of wine in the mix, but the alcohol should not leave an aftertaste. Neither should the garlic.

The Neighborhood Joint | Au Vieux Carouge

Photos: Robert Huber for The Wall Street Journal

Located in a neighborhood of gingerbread-like houses and gourmet stores on the outskirts of Geneva, Au Vieux Carouge was founded by a husband-and-wife transplant from Valais 28 years ago. It is what a diner is to hamburgers—a down-home spot filled with locals who crowd around orange caquelons. The menu makes some concessions to modern versions of fondue: The Marseillaise is spiced with herbs and the Neu-Neu has pasta mixed in. The tomato version—the owner’s favorite—is made with a homemade coulis.
Rue Jacques-Dalphin 27, Carouge, 022-342-6498

 

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