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Exploring Cheese Fondue: History, Fun Facts, and 8 Recipes

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

A bit of bread dipped into cheese fondue

A bit of bread dipped into cheese fondue

Did You Fondue?

If you were a young adult in the 1960s and '70s, there's a pretty good chance that you owned a fondue set, knew someone who did, or enjoyed cheese fondue at a party. My fondue pot was electric, came with eight forks, was lined with Teflon, and was a very trendy shade of avocado green (to match the stove and refrigerator).

Cheese fondue was a fun and cheap meal to share with friends (in-between games of Charades or Twister). But this cheesy dish was not invented by the pre-disco dance set. In fact, the history of cheese fondue goes back many centuries.

When, Where, and Why Was Cheese Fondue Invented?

Some food historians believe that the first recipe for cheese fondue appeared in chapter 11 of Homer's Iliad:

In this cup the woman skilled as a goddess
mixed them a strong drink with Pramnian wine,
over it shredded goat cheese with a bronze grater
and scattered barley into it, glistening pure white,
then invited them to drink when she had mulled it all.

I don't think so. Goat cheese, wine, and flour do not a fondue make.

My theory (and I'm sticking with it) is a bit more humble. In the cold months of winter, Alpine farmers would find that their food supplies were beginning to dwindle. But there were always a few bits of stale bread, hardened cheese, garlic, and wine. With those humble elements, families would ‘Käss mit wein zu kochen’ (cook cheese with wine). Stale bread and useless cheese were transformed into a tummy-filling meal.

As you know (without a degree in physics), whatever is at the top of the mountain eventually rolls downhill. In time, the practice of melting cheese and wine together emigrated to the towns in the foothills. Utensils were scarce and the fire was warm, so gathering around a communal pot became the norm, and cheese fondue was born.

How that quaint tradition evolved into the party-dish of the 1960s is a bit murky, but like many things, it hinges on economics and marketing.

Look how much fun you could have had at a 1960s fondue party!

Look how much fun you could have had at a 1960s fondue party!

The Swiss Cheese Mafia

In 1914 Europe was plunged into World War I. The cheese industry of Switzerland believed that their market would shrink, destroying their business. There was good reason for concern. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, cheese exports plummeted in the years 1915 and 1916, from nine million pounds to less than four million. In response, the triumvirate of Swiss milk producers, cheesemakers, and exporters formed a Schweizer Käseunion, a cheese union, to control the production and export of their most precious commodity. Their first order of business was regulating how much cheese could be exported from Switzerland; they needed to do what they could to prevent food shortages for their citizens. But along the way, the grasp and control of the union expanded to quality control and price-fixing.

The history of cheese fondue somewhat resembles the dish itself. While wading around the top layers, it's a bit difficult to take at first and quite easy to lose your bread, but then the oh-so-convincing wine (aka the Cheese Union) keeps flowing and that "good mood" eventually arrives, making the cheese and bread keep going all by itself. It's also important to remember . . . there is an unwritten rule of fondue—whoever drops the bread in the pot foots the bill.

— The Culture Trip, Sean Mowbray, 8 May 2017

The Union had the full backing of the Swiss government; soon the “free exportation” of cheese without special permission was prohibited. Switzerland had been known for the production of hundreds of types of cheese, but the Union focused their attention and desire on just three—Emmental, Gruyere, and the lesser-known Sbrinz (a hard mountain cheese).

Suddenly, producers making anything but the Union-approved triptych found themselves left in the dark. Only those who produced the holy trinity of Swiss cheeses were promoted. To further the sale of the “holey” duo (Emmental and Gruyere) the Union even invented a recipe that utilized both of them. The Schweizer Käseunion christened their invention the “national dish of Switzerland.” By now, you’ve probably figured out what this wonderful dish was. Yes, it was fondue.

Of Course, There Is Fondue Trivia

  • November is "Fun With Fondue" month.
  • April 11 is National Cheese Fondue Day.
  • Tradition tells us that if bread falls off a woman's fork and into the pot, she must kiss the person sitting next to her. If a man drops anything into the pot, he has to buy the next round of drinks.
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And There Are a Few Rules

  • Plenty of champagne, martinis or Manhattans
  • One fork per person (no sharing)
  • One plate in front of each guest
  • Stir the cheese by making a figure-eight pattern with your dipper of choice
  • Eat with a separate knife and fork, not from the dipping utensil
  • No double-dipping

At the end of the meal, if all of you have been judiciously stirring the mix at a low simmer, you will be rewarded with a crusty (unburnt) layer of cheese at the bottom of the pot. Fondue aficionados lovingly refer to this as la religieuse (the nun). Carefully remove this treasure from the bottom of the pot, and share it with your dining partners.

Fondue Dipping Options

Crusty bread

Apples

Pears

Gently-steamed broccoli

Gently steamed cauliflower

Bell pepper

Roasted baby potatoes

Cooked meatballs

Roasted Brussels sprouts

Chunks of cooked steak

Cornichons

Cooked shrimp

Salami

Cooked chicken chunks

Cooked bacon

Ham

Crisp-cooked asparagus

Pineapple

Steamed artichoke heart

Sauteed mushrooms

Cherry tomatoes

Cooked lobster (OMG!)

Dried apricots

Dried figs

How about dessert?

How about dessert?

Are You Ready for Some Recipes?

Although a true cheese fondue relies on a basic plan (cheese plus wine plus flavorings), there is not one specific recipe. If you consider the origins, there were probably many kinds of cheese in the larder, and so there is more than one formula.

Authentic Swiss cheese fondue

Authentic Swiss cheese fondue

Authentic Swiss Cheese Fondue

Aristotle stated that sometimes "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," and that is certainly true of traditional Swiss cheese fondue. Chef Markus Mueller is your guide with not only a simple six-ingredient recipe (that's two kinds of cheese, garlic, a pinch of cornstarch to stabilize the cheese, and a splash of kirsch at the end) but a guide to how to select the best fondue pot. Gutes essen!

Baked brie and garlic dip

Baked brie and garlic dip

Baked Brie and Garlic Dip

With this next recipe, it seems that I've already changed the rules; I apologize. Brie is so soft/creamy/dreamy it doesn't need much coaxing to turn into a blissful puddle of meltingly good gooeyness (are my feelings obvious?).

Mila bakes her brie and garlic dip in the oven and in just 15 minutes you have perfectly ooey-gooey truffle-oil scented brie perfect for scooping up with crackers, veggies, or toast. Top with a drizzle of honey or some chutney for an amazing appetizer.

Beer cheese fondue

Beer cheese fondue

Beer Cheese Fondue

The Cheese Union suggested that only two cheeses be used for a true fondue (Gruyere and Emmental). Let's break the rules again. This beer cheese fondue could certainly use Swiss cheese, but my personal favorites are gouda (oh, the smoked gouda is Heavenly in this), Colby, or white cheddar. Use whatever you might favor in a beer cheese soup.

By the way, make sure that you select a beer with low bitterness; pilsner lagers are good, wheat ales, and amber or brown ales. Steer away from brews that are sour or fruit-flavored.

Best queso blanco

Best queso blanco

Best Queso Blanco

Queso blanco is "white cheese" in Spanish, oh but it's so much more than that. Many home cooks rely on Velveta or other processed cheese to create this melty cheese dip; although quick and easy that method is also somewhat perilous. A broken cheese sauce is not a happy event (trust me).

Although typically used as an appetizer, you can use this creamy cheese sauce in so many ways. Just imagine luxurious melted cheese on tater tots, over burgers, as a dip for French fries, poured over baked potatoes, drizzled over scrambled eggs or crepes, or as a topper for a pulled pork sandwich. Did I miss anything? Use your imagination. And remember, you are in charge of the seasonings—you can make this as mild or as spicy as your little heart desires.

French onion cheese fondue

French onion cheese fondue

French Onion Cheese Fondue

This recipe takes the Swiss fondue to a whole new level—all the creamy meltiness of Gruyere and smoked Gouda should be enough to satisfy any cheese lover, right? No, this gets even better. Caramelized onions in all of their rich, buttery goodness are stirred in. It's like French onion soup fondue.

Kid-friendly (alcohol-free) cheese fondue

Kid-friendly (alcohol-free) cheese fondue

Kid-Friendly (Alcohol-Free) Cheese Fondue

If you're cooking for kids, or have removed alcohol from your diet, this alcohol-free fondue is for you. Rice wine or apple cider vinegar gives this sauce the little bit of tang one usually gets from dry white wine. Think of it as another way to get your little ones to eat their veggies.

Spinach and artichoke fondue

Spinach and artichoke fondue

Spinach and Artichoke Cheese Fondue

An amazingly rich and decadent spinach-artichoke cheese fondue. All the flavors you love in your favorite party dip (plus three kinds of cheese) are now in a dreamy creamy hot pot of yumminess.

Ultra cheesy apple cider fondue

Ultra cheesy apple cider fondue

Ultra Cheesy Apple Cider Fondue

Instead of wine or beer, use some hard cider for this apple cider fondue. Make sure to stir the cheese in a little at a time—if you overwhelm the pot the cheese will not melt properly and you'll be left with just a gloppy mess. You can change this recipe up a bit by using mature cheddar cheese. Cheddar and apples are simply made for each other.

Roses are red,

violets are blue.

cheese is better

when it’s for two.

Sources

© 2020 Linda Lum

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