It’s hard to imagine a more appealing evening than a night with friends around the fondue pot, dipping chunks of bread into bubbling cheese. At least, that’s my opinion. Many may disagree, but certainly not most people in Switzerland, where fondue is the national dish, established as such by the Swiss Cheese Union in the 1930s in an effort to promote the consumption of cheese at home. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the fad became a craze in the United States.
Originating in Switzerland as a way to use up hardened cheese, fondue was a classic dish of peasants. From the French word fondre, meaning “to melt,” the traditional fondue is a mixture of Emmenthaler and Gruyère cheeses with wine or cherry brandy. The combination of cheeses, wines, garlic and herbs softened the stale breads of 18th-century Swiss villagers, fortifying them through the colder months while keeping waste minimal. Today, varieties made with different blends of cheeses are also popular.
In Switzerland, neutrality is king, except when it comes to fondue, with each region claiming the best formula. Whichever combinations of cheeses and wines one prefers, there are a few classically Swiss rules for how best to enjoy the dish. It is said fondue should only be paired with white wine or hot tea. According to The Wall Street Journal, other libations can cause an indigestible ball of cheese in the stomach. The purest of fondue eaters don’t mix greens or salad with the dairy, but it is okay to enjoy with cured meats. Also according to tradition, whoever first loses his bread in the pot of cheese buys a round for the table.
To properly prepare fondue, rub the inside of the caquelon, or fondue pot, with a cut garlic clove. Heat white wine slightly with cornstarch and add grated cheese, stirring until melted. Top it off with a bit of kirsch. Keep it warm enough to stay smooth and warm, not too hot and not scorching.
Over the years, the tradition of fondue has adapted to include broths, chocolate and oils. Meat fondue, or fondue Bourguignonne, was born in Burgundy, France; fieldworkers rarely had a break for meals and would keep a boiling pot of oil in the fields, cooking pieces of meat as the day carried on. A lighter version, or Chinese fondue, features meat and vegetables cooked in a shared pot of broth. Everyone cooks his or her own food, with the blend of tastes from the various ingredients flavoring the broth. In the mid-20th century, dessert fondue was born in the United States. While the exact origin remains unclear, dipping fruits, pastries, coconut, marshmallows and more in melted chocolate has become a tasty tradition in itself.
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