• Posted by Allison Grimaldi Donahue on December 27th, 2008, 9:04 PM
    Photos by Scott Valentine

    Photos by Scott Valentine

    Fondue, the term, comes from the Latin fundare, to melt, and has found its way into the vocabularies of nearly every romance language. It is a winter tradition in the French-speaking part of Switzerland but it has adherents throughout the Alps. Eating fondue is a simple way to get warm and full and it’s relatively economical since it is made of cheese, the poor man’s meat. Unlike other foods, cheese often improves with age and can last many months. When the weather in the Alps turned cold, the cheese that had been made in the summer, even if it wasn’t in its prime, could be melted down into a delicious sauce. Even stale bread could be salvaged because of fondue—dipping anything into a hot bath of cheese can renew its life force.

    The first time I ate fondue was in the Alps, hidden in the shadow of the Matterhorn, after stealing a sled and rushing down the mountain. It felt antiquated to eat the bread and cheese out of a steaming pot, probably because there are no cars allowed onto the mountain and everything was rustic and quiet. There was also a copious amount of glühwein, a highly alcoholic, hot, mulled and spiced wine, which added to the ambiance. It goes beyond ambiance, though; eating fondue brings on a feeling of gemütlichkeit. Gemütlichkeit is a term that means cozy and warm and glowing and tasty all in one and, at least in my mind, it cannot be translated; it’s not a word, but rather a place full of lanterns and gingerbread.

    Four years ago I moved to Germany for six months to pursue a former love. No one mentioned on the student housing forms that my roommates would nearly all be from Lucerne, a French-speaking area of Switzerland, where fondue is all the rage. I would come home from a long day of classes to the stink of melting cheese. Over time, I came to think of it as an aroma, but in the beginning it was a definite stink. They would make fondue for hours, sitting around drinking cheap wine and beer, listening to Robbie Williams and Muse and eating cheese. But there was little romanticism in this meal, it was cheap, tasty, and easy to make. I joined in on the eating, on occasion, but was never involved in the production. Interfering with a Swiss person’s fondue, it seemed to me, is like telling an Italian how to cook…anything. You just don’t.

    It took me three years for me to make a fondue of my own. After my travels, it was something I could bring back to New York and give to my friends. Given that I work in a cheese shop that sells some of the best Swiss cheeses in the world, I don’t see how it could have gone awry. Actually, I take that back. I could have burned the cheese and scorched all of the flavor out of it—but I didn’t.

    I only invited a few people over as we only have six fondue forks and I wanted true cheese lovers only. I apparently selected wisely, as the guests brought spicy, full-bodied wines (a southern Côtes du Rhône and some Barberas from Italy’s Piemonte) and a pear liqueur that my friend who has lived in Switzerland told us was a popular finish to a fondue feast. I bought plenty of crusty French bread with a nice, dense crumb and stocked up on cured pork and cornichons with onions.

    The cheeses for the fondue were of the Rolf Beeler variety. Anyone familiar with old world high-end cheese knows about Beeler. He is an affineur, a craftsman who selects and ages the finest wheels of cheese, and he is very well known all over Europe. Beeler finds the best dairies and hand-selects which milk is used and which cheeses get his name on them. These are nothing like your deli Swiss, which, after eating some Beeler Gruyère, will taste like textured plastic. They have intense, sharp flavor, sweet beginnings, and stinky aromas. These are complex cheeses that, like wine, change and develop over time and with different pairings.

    Typically fondue involves two or three cheeses, but this being a Brooklyn fondue I decided to take things to the extreme and use four. I revel in the differences between Alpine cheeses because, for most of my life, I didn’t know about any of them. For instance, there is a sea of difference between the flavor of Emmenthal (or Emmenthaler) and Gruyère. Emmenthal is a biting cheese and can leave an itchy feeling in your mouth. Gruyère is nutty and sweet and full of crunchy crystals. I chose my four favorite Rolf Beeler cheeses: Gruyère and Emmenthal, fondue standbys, and then a bit of Appenzeller for sweetness and Vacherin Fribourgeois for its funky barnyard flavor. All of the cheeses I used were semi-hard and made of cow’s milk. The Swiss also make amazing soft, creamy cheeses that come in buttery and stinky varieties. I look forward to making another fondue later this winter with some of these—it will test the true cheese fanatics in our group of friends.

    The fondue party was a beautiful event; it felt like we had traveled into the past and slowed a bit. My décor consisted of a few candles, instead of a fireplace, and some Fleetwood Mac playing in the background. (Fittingly, my apartment resembles something in between an alpine cabin and a German student-housing nightmare.) The fondue pot brings people to the center of the room, gathered around, and this is a nice change. There was something familial about it and, as the night ended, everyone parted hugging and kissing with rosy warm cheeks and a wine colored smile. Brooklyn was a small town that night.


  1. November 3rd, 2010 at 5:15 am
    Laura S.

    A chocolate fondue can be a easy fondue pot or an elaborate chocolate fondue fountain

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