March is a time of melting, as my webmaster reminded me. Melting snow mainly in the north of the United States, where I spend the non-France part of my life. And after this past finger-numbing Michigan February, I certainly hope he’s right! So it seemed logical that March would be the month of fondue.
The word fondue comes from the French fondre, which means to melt. And there will be a lot of melting before you can dig in. Or rather dip in.
In France, there is fondue bourguignonne (with meat) or fondue savoyarde (with cheese). Savoie was an independent region annexed by France in 1860, which is very recently. It’s in the Alps, near Switzerland - and thus the cheese, I guess.
The Swiss used fondue as a way to make it through the winter on little money, stale bread and hardened cheese. Now it’s become a pretext for a fun party, because anyone who loses his or her crust of bread in the cheese will have to a) buy the next bottle of wine, b) kiss his/her partner, c) perform a “trick” such as singing a song or telling a joke, and just generally getting teased a lot.
There are few ingredients, so the choice of the wine and the cheese is of vital importance. The wine must be a light and dry white, such as a Neuchâtel, Rhine, Riesling or Chablis. The cheese is traditionally Emmentaler and/or Gruyère. Fondue made with only Emmentaler is mildest, both together is a bit stronger, and well-aged Gruyère alone has the strongest flavor
- 1 lb of “Swiss” cheese
- 2 c white wine
- 1 T cornstarch
- 2 or 3 T kirsch, or other brandy/cognac
- a dash of nutmeg
- salt & pepper
- clove of garlic
- crusty bread
You can start getting ready in advance by cutting the cheese into very small pieces or shredding it. It will melt more smoothly than if you grate it.
Then cut up some small loaves of hard-crust “French”-style bread, leaving two sides of crust because if you lose your bread... well, see above. The drier the bread, the better, so if you have a lot of bread left over from a party, this is an excellent opportunity to use it up. Remember, the Swiss dunked their bread because they weren’t wasteful; how do you think the country got so rich?
Kirsch (cherry brandy) is the traditional Swiss choice of brandy for a fondue. You can use cognac, light white rum or even hard cider. Or maybe a Poire William pear brandy from Alsace?
- Begin by heating the white wine over direct low heat until air bubbles start to rise to the surface. NEVER BOIL THE WINE!
- Right away add the cheese, a handful at a time and stir with a wooden spoon. And stir. And stir. Until the cheese is melted. Then add another handful. And stir.
- When all the cheese is melted, add the cornstarch diluted in the brandy. Add salt and pepper to taste, and a dash of nutmeg (freshly grated, if possible).
- Cut a large clove of garlic in half and thoroughly rub the inside of a round earthenware pot for an added layer of flavor. For cheese fondue, you use an earthenware pot, called caquelon (pronounced “kah - keh - lo”); the metal ones are for the hot oil of meat fondue.
- Pour the cheese fondue into the caquelon and light it up. Use a sterno or other type of fuel heat; candles won’t keep the cheese warm enough.
- Unlike fondue bourguignonne, where you just put in your fork and leave it until the meat is done to your liking, with cheese fondue you have to go one at a time, so arm yourself with patience. More time for conversation. Besides, if several people have a go at the same time, someone could knock someone else’s bread off, and that’s sabotage (again, see above). So one at a time, please, and dunking in a figure 8 motion so that you get the most cheese possible AND stir the cheese at the same time. (Remember, the Swiss are famous for precision: watches and such.)
- At the end you’ll have a rich brown crust on the bottom of the caquelon. This is considered “the best part” and it can either be divided up or awarded to the one who didn’t lose their bread.
Should the cheese get too thick, stir in a little wine. If it separates or gets lumpy, put it back on the burner, stir in ½ t of cornstarch blended in a bit of warm wine and stir it with a wire whisk.