by Samantha Suarez
For a fun meal with friends, nothing hits the spot like fondue. It’s communal, laid-back and makes for a totally unique dining experience. First of all, diners get to choose their favorite dippers. Secondly, you, as the host, get to spend more time with your guests rather than toil in the kitchen. Lastly, since everyone will be bent over a pot to make sure their piece of bread gets enough cheese, it guarantees lively conversation.
What’s more, with fondue people get to choose their food, to a certain extent. With all dietary programs that exist today, serving fondue just makes it easier to please everyone. It’s literally a melting pot of possible aromas and flavors.
There are many different types of fondue: cheese, oil or broth. Then, of course, there’s dessert fondue: warm, delicious chocolate, for example, where marshmallows and fruit are the quintessential dippers.
The word “fondue” comes from the French word fondre, which means “to melt.” Most people believe Swiss farm families created the dish to make use of their leftover bread and cheese during winter months. Fast forward to 1930, when the Swiss Cheese Union (Yes, there’s an official union for cheese. Where can we sign up?) declared it as the country’s national dish.
The Essentials: The Gouda, the bad, and the ugly
Before you get yourself in a fon-doozy, don’t fret: We’ve got you covered. Recipe-wise, there is no universal formula for this Little Swiss Sunshine. There isn’t even a unanimously agreed upon cheese that is an absolute must-have. There are only guidelines, preferences and, of course, your imagination.
The most basic ingredients for cheese fondue are cheese, wine and garlic. You’ll also find the occasional add-ins like kirsch, herbs, paprika or nutmeg.
For Heather Zinn, owner of The Cheese Lady, her winning combination is Gruyere and Emmental cheese.
“Lots of people like to throw in a wild card cheese, like maybe a sharp cheddar, Raclette or Fontina,” Zinn said. “You can’t really go wrong with a bunch of cheese melted in a pot.”
Chelsea Thomas, General Manager of The Melting Pot’s Grand Rapids branch, said to “definitely experiment, but follow a base and make sure you have ingredients that will melt properly and thicken up.”
Kate Leeder of Aperitivo in the Downtown Market said she likes “to balance it out with a little high-end cheese and a little low-end cheese.”
As for basic preparation tips, she instructed to “let the wine simmer first and, once your cheese is grated, add a tablespoon or two of cornstarch to the cheese mix.” This helps to thicken the mixture and aids in blending the cheeses nicely.
Our advice? Because fondues are simple to prepare, with raw components that are often on display, buy high-quality ingredients from local, speciality stores. As a general rule, avoid pre-grated cheese. The difference will be noticeable.
Meet the Dippers
Don’t even bother dipping pre-sliced white bread: it will fall apart before it reaches your mouth. What works best is bread that is firm and dry, but not stale. Try a chewy French or Italian loaf that can withstand the heat of the fondue and the thickness of the cheese. Don’t forget to cut it into bite-size cubes!
For more variety, Thomas recommended artisanal dippers like summer sausage, prosciutto and other premium cured meats. Zinn likes to dip pickles, salami, vegetables, apples or potatoes.
“Definitely experiment, but follow a base and make sure you have ingredients that will melt properly and thicken up.”
-Chelsea Thomas, General Manager of The Melting Pot’s Grand Rapids brand.
How to Throw a Fabulous Fondue Party: Advice from Experts
If you want to go all-out, why not have fondue for the appetizer, the main course and the dessert? You can have the cheese first, followed by an oil or broth and stick the landing with a dessert fondue. Research different recipes per fondue category and choose the one you feel would be the best combination for your three-way fondue experience.
“I would have my guests help put the recipes together so they could watch the whole process and build anticipation for the deliciousness,” Zinn suggested. “Then we would all enjoy the variety of fondue and accompaniments with great wine and some local beers and ciders!”
Leeder recommends delegating tasks. “Someone should be in charge of the cheese fondue, another for the broth/oil fondue and another for the dessert fondue. What’s great is that if everyone has an assignment, they’re each only in charge of one thing.”
Some other elements that might add a little flare to the experience are:
- A decorative platter to display your dippers
- Color-coded fondue forks and individual plates so guests don’t mix theirs up
- Good wine and cocktails to liven up conversation
The Equipment: How Important is a Proper Fondue Pot?
You want a pot that the cheese isn’t going to burn or stick to. Having a genuine set is great, but a double boiler on the stove will work just fine in a pinch.
Etiquette & Fun Facts
Although it may seem like common sense, it needs to be said: Never eat right off the fondue fork! It’s a cooking tool, not a dining tool. Even though fondue is communal eating, you don’t want to contaminate the mix.
In traditional Swiss culture, losing your bread in the pot is considered bad form.
Another old school fondue tradition is that if a woman’s dipper falls into the pot, she has to kiss the man on her left. If a man drops his dipper, some say he has to buy a round of drinks for the table. Others say he has to chug a full glass of wine or take a shot. So be careful with those dippers unless you want a fondue party full of intoxicated people kissing each other!
Sweet Dreams are Made of Cheese
In short: A fondue meal is so much more than your average sit-down dinner: It’s more interactive and leisurely, and you should give it a shot at your next gathering. So invite some friends over, bring out that fondue pot and start planning your menu! Turn that melted cheese into happy memories.