It might have started life as an economy dish for poor dairy farmers holed up in deep snow in a Swiss valley for many months of the winter, but for us the cheese fondue has become a luxury family favourite.
The marooned Swiss created the dish to use up the aged bread and cheese they had saved from the warmer months to see them through the harsh vagaries of the winter, having found that if they heated the hard (by now often very hard) cheese with wine, garlic and herbs it would melt into a silky, savoury deliciousness that would also soften their hard bread. Hence the word fondue, which comes from the French word fondre to melt.
So, in the bleak midwinter of Berkshire, we skip off to market to buy our just-wrapped cheese and freshly-baked bread, plus some extra vegetables for dippers, such as carrot batons, celery, cauliflower, apples and, because we’re a greedy lot, some deli meats to go with it, such as sliced chorizo and salami (well I did say luxury).
Then we do like the Swiss do and lay our feast out on a table in front of the fire, tuck in with dipper of choice and enjoy one of the chief, for us at any rate, consolations of the winter months. It’s also very quick, simple and easy on the chef and you don’t even need a fondue set.
In fact, we no longer have ours as the pot’s handles fell off through overuse, so now we just heat the cheese in a saucepan on the hob and transfer it to a flame-proof dish kept warm over the burner that remains, but you could even use a tealight burner if necessary, although there are some very smart electric models now on the market... maybe next year.
It goes without saying that traditionally you should use Swiss cheeses like Emmental and Gruyère (a mix is probably best for the silkiness of the Emmental and the sharper flavour of the Gruèyre), but there are those in our midst who will only have Cheddar, which also melts down beautifully, even though I shouldn’t think the dairy farmers in Somerset ever had cause to do so. Still, it’s also good, and goes beautifully with cider.
Then there’s my sister, who doesn’t like any form of cooked cheese at all, so for her we make a fish fondue, which isn’t really a fondue at all, rather more like a table-top cook-in, which has also become a family favourite. This is a dish that’s great to eat all year round and has the benefit of being much lighter on the calorie counter since, it has to be admitted, cheese fondue isn’t for the faint-hearted weightwatcher.
We first came across the fish fondue in a hotel on a business trip to Leipzig where it was served as a sort of back-to -front dinner, with diners cooking the fish in the broth first and then ladling it out into bowls to eat as a soup afterwards, now having absorbed all the flavours and bits and pieces of the fallen fish, mopped up by some very fresh crusty bread. We eat it no other way.
I usually serve this with crusty bread, some salads, and a variety of dips for the fish, like the delicious homemade tartare sauce (see recipe below)
1 litre fish or chicken stock
250ml dry white wine
salt and pepper and/or dash of fish sauce
250g firm flesh white fish, like monkfish or halibut, and/or salmon
1 Pour the stock and wine into a fondue pot on the hob over medium heat, season, bring to a boil, then reduce and let simmer. 2 Rinse the scallops, shrimp and fish, pat dry and cut into bite-sized pieces. If large, cut the scallops into thinner coins.
3 Arrange seafood and fish on serving plates and keep refrigerated until fondue starts.
4 Light the fondue burner and adjust the heat to medium – if it’s too high the broth will evaporate quickly, if not hot enough the fish will take a long time to cook.
5 Transfer the broth into your fondue pot.
6 Put a fish or seafood onto your fondue fork and cook it in the broth until the prawns go pink and the fish is firm.
Traditional Swiss cheese fondue
1 cut clove of garlic
300g grated Gruyère cheese
300g Emmental cheese
300ml dry white wine (the dryer the better)
2 tspns cornflour
3 tblspns Kirsch (optional)
Ground white pepper
Grating of nutmeg
1 Rub the inside of the fondue pot with the cut clove of garlic.
2 Put the cheese into a fondue pot and sprinkle over the cornflour.
3 Add the wine and heat over a hot flame until the cheese is melted and bubbling.
4 Stir in the Kirsch, season with the pepper and nutmeg.
5 Bring to the table, place over the burner and tuck in.
West Country cheese fondue
1 cut glove of garlic
300 grated mature cheddar
300 gs double Gloucester
2 tspsn cornflour
300 ml dry cider
3 tspns cider brandy or Calvados
Use the method above, substituting all ingredients as above.