Popularized on a national level in the 1930s following a marketing campaign by the Swiss Cheese Union, fondue now knows few limits in Switzerland. You'll find it across the country from rustic mountain chalets to big city restaurants, enjoyed by all ages and income brackets. For a practically effortless, spur-of-the moment fondue, pre-made vacuum-packed versions are sold in most supermarkets, and some of them are surprisingly good.
Finding fondue in Switzerland is easy, but if you're dining with a group of Swiss, especially suisses romands (from the French-speaking western part of the country), you'll soon realize that the eating part isn't so simple.
The Swiss are great fans of tradition, so it's not surprising that they have habits and conventions related to the preparation and eating of fondue. To the Swiss, fondue isn't just about dunking a bit of bread into a pot of melted cheese; it's also a kind of festive ritual with its own customs and rules of etiquette.
The cheese used in Swiss fondue
Most Swiss fondues are made with Gruyère and another cheese such as Emmental and/or creamy Vacherin fribourgeois. Fondue moitié-moitié (half-and-half) is a popular version containing half Gruyère, half Vacherin fribourgeois. Fondue fribourgeoise, made with only Vacherin fribourgeois and with water instead of the traditional white wine, is particularly delicate in flavor and creamy in texture.
The Swiss tend to have non-negotiable opinions about what you should drink with fondue. A dry, acidic white wine is the standard accompaniment, most often one made from the chasselas grape, for example a blanc de la Côte from Vaud, or a Fendant from Valais. The traditional belief is that the alcohol in the wine aids digestion, an effect that is supposed to be further enhanced by drinking a shot of kirsch (cherry brandy) during or after the meal.
The recommended non-alcoholic beverage is hot tea. Many Swiss believe, and indeed insist, that it is crucial to avoid drinking cold beverages with fondue, as they are thought to cause the cheese to coagulate in the stomach and potentially cause very uncomfortable digestive distress. Fortunately, a 2010 study demonstrated that no such risk exists, so you need not be concerned about unpleasant consequences if you prefer to have a soft drink or beer with your fondue -- however you will probably have to endure some harsh disapproving looks from your fellow diners. Before you take your first sip, an important Swiss custom at any meal accompanied by wine (fondue or otherwise) is to clink glasses individually with each person at the table while looking them in the eye. Skipping someone or avoiding eye contact is considered rude, as is allowing your arms to intersect with someone else's as you clink.
Utensils, etiquette and technique
The long fondue fork is, traditionally, only for dipping pieces of bread in the fondue. In theory you should place the dipped bread on your plate and proceed to eat it with a regular knife and fork; in practice, however, almost no one does this. But fondue etiquette does require that you avoid partaking of fondue if you're ill, never double-dip your bread, and avoid dipping while someone else's fork is still immersed.
Bread dipping serves not only to convey the molten cheese from pot to mouth, it's also an opportunity to stir the fondue regularly, thereby preventing it from separating and from sticking and burning. So with each dip you should plunge your bread-loaded fork all the way to the bottom of the pot and give a few good, vigorous stirs (some claim you should only stir in a figure 8). Then remove the hot, cheesy morsel, lingering over the pot for a moment to let the excess drip off, and either eat it straight away or allow it to cool for a moment on your plate.
If you like black pepper with your fondue but some of your dining companions do not, you can grind a little mound onto your plate in which to dab the cheese-coated bread before popping it into your mouth.
The bread (and how not to lose it)
The bread, often mi-blanc (a white, oval bread with a relatively thin yet sturdy crust) is supposed to be day-old to enhance its sturdiness, but this isn't absolutely necessary. It is most often served cut into thick slices rather than cubes. Help yourself to a slice and tear it into chunks as you go, allowing each chunk some crust that you can then pierce with your fondue fork; this will reduce the risk of the bread disintegrating and disappearing into the fondue. If a piece of bread should nevertheless manage to escape from your fork, traditionally there can be penalties for this, for example paying for the wine, kissing the person next to you, or completing a dare.
Le coup du milieu
Le coup du milieu can be loosely translated as "shot (or hit) at the halfway point". In the context of fondue, le coup du milieu is a small glass of spirits, usually kirsch, that is drunk about halfway through the meal and is supposed to aid digestion and stimulate a faltering appetite. In fact the above-mentioned study showed that this is not actually the case, but at the very least a quick break for a coup du milieu might boost your motivation to carry on.
At the end of the meal, if you've been stirring away as you eat and the fondue has been kept at a very low bubble, you should find a crusty, golden, unburnt layer of cheese forming at the bottom of the pot, known as la religieuse (the nun). When all of the cheese has solidified into this cracker-like crust, extinguish the flame of the burner, use a knife to pry off the crust, lift it out and share it with your dining companions.
A lesser-known but also tasty tradition is to extend the meal by breaking an egg into the last of the fondue, before it solidifies, and stirring it well. The result is a soft mixture resembling cheesy scrambled eggs that you can scrape up with a bit of bread.
Cheese fondue was originally conceived to use up leftover cheese and stale bread. Variations on this simple theme abound in Switzerland: the above-mentioned moitié-moitié and fondue fribourgeoise, as well as tomato fondue (served with boiled potatoes), mushroom fondue, champagne fondue, goat cheese fondue, and others ...
And just beyond the border there are still others, such as the French fondue savoyarde and the Italian fonduta piemontese. Don't go looking for chocolate fondue, however, as it is not part of the Swiss or European tradition. Chocolate fondue was in fact invented in New York in the 1960s (albeit by an ingenious Swiss restaurateur).
The recommended finish to a fondue dinner is a glass of kirsch and something light like a fresh fruit salad, but if your appetite is, amazingly, not yet fully satiated, give meringues with Gruyère double cream a try – decadent and delicious.
Whatever version you choose, there are few meals as festive and crowd-pleasing, yet simple, as fondue. As a 1980s advertising slogan put it: "La fondue crée la bonne humeur": "fondue puts you in a good mood".
Images: Laura Vidale, Edi Barth