When the villagers of Swiss and French mountain villages devised a warming winter dish with their local cheese and white wine, they did not know it would become an international dinner hit. It is no wonder why this right has crossed boundaries. In the cold and dark months, it is universally appealing to sit and enjoy by the fire, and when you can bring the fire to the dinner table for a meal that encourages and embraces interaction, warmth and – best of all – a kettle of melted cheese, it’s hard to resist.
I lived in Switzerland for 10 years where I had my fair share of fondue. Depending on the region, fondue may vary with the cheese used, favoring the local cow’s milk cheese produced or additional ingredients (such as porcini mushrooms or even tomato puree *). Although the ingredients may change a little, the tradition remains firmly in place and fondue is without a doubt a national dish.
I had plenty of time to practice the technique of making fondue, and this recipe is my takeaway, which has become our family tradition. It takes inspiration from the traditional Swiss method with just a few tweaks (sorry, my Swiss friends). For example, fruity Calvados (apple brandy) has been replaced by the traditional kirsch. And instead of just serving the fondue with bread, as the Swiss insist, I also send bowls of parboiled baby potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower bouquets for dipping (a great way to get your kids to eat their vegetables) and serve other alpine accessories, such as dried meat and gherkins on the side.
What should not be adjusted – and where I want to put my American foot down – is the origin of the cheese: Buy the best quality, cave-aged Swiss or French alpine cheese you can find, such as Gruyere, Emmenthal, Vacherin Fribourgeois, Comte or Beaufort, and blend them like to your liking. I like to use a mix of 2/3 Gruyere and 1/3 Emmental or Comte.
Depending on how long the cheese is aged, the taste can vary from a young, mild and creamy cheese to a aged spicy cheese with earthy, nutty and / or salty notes. Aim for a aged alpine cheese, especially when using Gruyere, which will add nuances and a earthy umami flavor to your cheese casserole.
* Yes, it is actually a tomato fondue, which is a popular iteration in the Valais region or canton. It is delicious, and high on my must-make list. I promise I will publish the recipe once I have made it.
Alpine cheese fondue
Note: Have all your ingredients ready before you begin. Once started, the fondue will quickly come together, during which time it must be constantly stirred. The fondue must not boil.
1/4 cup Calvados brandy
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus extra for serving
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3 cups dry white wine without oak, such as sauvignon blanc
1 large clove garlic, chopped
1½ pound alpine cheese, such as Gruyere and Emmenthal, coarsely grated
1 country-style bread or levain bread, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
Parboiled vegetables: small potatoes, broccoli and cauliflower bouquets
Whisk Calvados, cornstarch, salt, black pepper and nutmeg in a small bowl until smooth. Set aside.
Put wine and garlic in a large, heavy saucepan, Dutch oven or fondue pot. Heat over medium heat until small bubbles form, giving the wine a sparkling appearance without it coming to a boil.
Add the cheese, one handful at a time, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until each handful is melted before adding the next. When all the cheese has been added, continue to stir for approx. 1 minute to thicken a little – do not let the fondue boil during the whole process.
Stir in the cornstarch mixture and continue stirring until the cheese thickens to a fondue consistency. (Note: Some corn starch brands thicken more easily than others. If your fondue stays thin, whip 1 tablespoon more cornstarch with 2 tablespoons white wine and stir in the cheese).
When the foundation is ready, take it off the heat. If necessary, pour the cheese into a hot fondue pot and place it over a fondue burner. Serve immediately with extra ground pepper, bread and parboiled vegetables such as small potatoes, cauliflower and broccoli bouquets.
Lynda Balslev is a cookbook author in the San Francisco Bay Area, food and travel writer and recipe developer.