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Throwback Thursday: The art of the cheese fondue

Tony Jackman’s cheese fondue with bread served in a Mervyn Gers bowl. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Geometric brown and orange wallpaper, a luminous lava lamp oozing pinkly-red on a table, and your favourite people huddled around a pot bubbling over a tiny flame. In the pot, molten cheese into which they’re dipping skewered chunks of bread on forks, to collect the cheesy sauce and savour it. How perfectly 70s was the cheese fondue…

Any old bread and cheese lying around at risk of becoming so past-it that it has to be thrown out? In that dilemma, you have the ancient origins of the cheese fondue.

Fondue is a derivation of the French verb fondre, to melt, and a Swiss fondue was once, and for a very long time, exclusively about cheese. Wikipedia dates its earliest known origin to 1699 in a published recipe for “Käss mit Wein zu kochen” (cheese cooked with wine), in which pieces of cheese are melted with wine, and bread dipped into it: the essential, basic fondue we know today, though now there are many variations, and today it doesn’t even have to have any cheese at all.

But until the late 1800s the term “cheese fondue” or fonduë de fromage did not refer to our notion of it at all, but to a dish that was “something between scrambled eggs with cheese and a cheese soufflé”. Brillat-Savarin wrote dismissively of it in 1834, says Wiki, as “nothing other than scrambled eggs with cheese”.

Eggs are in fact an ingredient of some forms of modern fondue. The Fondue Genevoise (of Geneva) is made of “a combination of egg yolks, butter, cream, sugar, nutmeg, salt, pepper, and grated cheese – either Emmental or Gruyere”, says an excellent piece on Taste Atlas. But many recipes say you should not salt it, as cheese is salty.

The fondue pot is called a caquelon. It stands on a metal base with a portable stove called a réchaud at its centre, in which a flame is lit to warm the caquelon. Traditionally it might have been heated by a small candle as very little heat is needed – the cooking happens before you sit down around the pot to stick your forks in. A simple gel from the braai goods section of the supermarket is all you need to fuel the spirit lamp. This strikes me as being safer than a liquid fuel, which can spill if somebody accidentally knocks the contraption.

Other than cheese, in modern times we also have the oil fondue or meat fondue (pieces of steak or sometimes chicken or pork are cooked in bubbling oil in the pot, then dipped in a sauce); the broth fondue (in which bits of thinly sliced meat, fish or vegetable are poached rather than boiled), and an American variation from New York City: the chocolate fondue. A rarer form (Fondue Bacchus or Fondue Vigneronne) has wine in the pot, in which pieces of meat, fish or vegetables are poached, then dipped in a sauce such as Béarnaise, which I would argue is the best dipping sauce for a Fondue Bourguignonne (meat fondue) too.

But there are many variations of the cheese fondue, and an excellent Taste Atlas article sets them out.

Fondue Moitié-moitié (half-half), from Fribourg, is made “with equal amounts of Gruyère and Vacherin Fribourgeois cheese, along with garlic, white wine, potato starch, black pepper, and Kirsch”, after the fondue pot is rubbed with a clove of garlic. This is a key element of the cheese fondue, as is the addition of wine, and cornstarch to bind the cheese. Once rubbed, the remains of the garlic are left in the pot to meld with the cheese and wine.

A Fondue Jurassienne is perhaps the version that best fits the modern fondue that has survived so well. For this fondue, the cheese is always Comté, and, says the Taste Atlas piece, “highly acidic white wine is first warmed in a pan or a pot, and it is then combined with a combination of Comté cheese and cornflour until it is thoroughly combined with the wine. Kirsch, salt, and pepper are added to the whole combination, which is then transferred to a well-warmed, garlic-rubbed fondue pot set over a flame”. Other than the choice of cheese and the Kirsch, which isn’t easy to come by in my part of the world, this is pretty much the method we used this week.

From the canton of Valais in Switzerland comes an exciting alternative: a tomato fondue. Taste Atlas asserts that this classic Swiss fondue “is believed by some to be the best fondue variety of them all”. It requires tomatoes, white wine, garlic, butter, shallots, Gruyère and Emmental, and pieces of cooked potato are traditionally dipped in it.

An Italian variation called Fondue alla Valdostana, from the Aosta Valley, is based on Fontina cheese and is enriched with egg yolks. Milk and flour combine to thicken it, and truffle shavings are sometimes added.

From neighbouring France comes the Fondue Savoyarde (from Savoie), “Originally a dish from Switzerland, fondue quickly rose to popularity in the Savoie region,” writes Taste Atlas. The cheeses are often Gruyére, Beaufort, Emmental, and Comté and “the Savoie tradition says that if your piece of bread slides off the fork into the rich, hearty fondue, you must buy the next round of drinks, kiss the person next to you, or even run naked through the snow”. In this grand and exotic alternative, once the caquelon has been emptied, “the fondue pot is crusted with toasted cheese, called la religieuse, providing some sort of a religious delight for true fondue aficionados”.

France may seem to hold the origins of the meaty version, known as Fondue Bourguignonne, but its origins are Swiss. As with the source of the superb KwaZulu-Natal tradition of the Tin Fish Curry, it was born when farm workers would take pots with them to the fields in which to cook pieces of meat in hot oil. 

The chocolate fondue is attributed to one Konrad Egli, who “created a sweet chocolate fondue in his New York restaurant called Chalet Suisse. The now popular Toblerone chocolate had a marketing campaign in the USA at the time, and Egli used it in the first chocolate fondue, which also incorporated heavy cream and Swiss kirschwasser”.

You can find the full Taste Atlas story with links to further reading here.

So, let’s make a cheese fondue, and not get too complicated about it. So, if you want to finish it with Kirsch, add that element to your version of the recipe.

Ingredients

1 fat clove of garlic, peeled and cut in half or quarters

200 g each of 3 cheeses that melt well, cut into small squares

About 200 to 300 ml dry white wine (but add it a little at a time, and stop when you feel the mixture is right)

A pinch of nutmeg

Squares of bread

2 tsp cornflour mixed with 2 Tbsp wine

A grinding of white pepper

Chunks of bread such as a good ciabatta

Fire gel (not an ingredient but I’m listing it here to remind you to add it to your shopping list; it’s easy to forget)

Method

Here’s the order of things: First, garlic, then wine, then cornflour, then cheese, more wine, more cheese, and so on, until it becomes stringy. It’s important to have that word, or element, in mind as your target. Along the way, while always stirring the cheese until it is all incorporated, you need to put the wooden spoon in, lift it high above the pot, and watch to see if stringy cheese drips down. That’s what you want.

You’re also looking for balance: if it’s too runny, it will not be right. The cornstarch helps it coagulate; gives it hold when you skewer the bread and dip it in.

Along the way, the mixture might curdle; just add more cheese and keep stirring while it melts, and eventually it will be oozy and delightful.

Prepare your equipment a few days ahead. Get the fondue set down from wherever it has been for the past 40 years. Wash and dry it. Find the skewers or order new ones from Takealot (I did that, this week).

Choose your cheeses according to what is available that melts well. Traditional options include Gruyère, Fontina, Gouda and Emmental; sometimes Comté. I used Cheddar, Edam, and Boerenkaas (my region of the country is not blessed with cheeses unless there’s a food festival going on or I’ve ordered in from elsewhere). Cut them into small squares, then mix them all up in a bowl so that all three kinds of cheese are added to the pot at a time.

Another important thing is that the cheese is not melted on the little burner. It happens in the caquelon, but on the stove top.

Cut bread into squares and place in a pretty bowl.

Halve or quarter the garlic and rub the bottom and insides of the pot vigorously. Leave the remaining garlic in the pot.

Pour in 100 ml dry white wine and heat it gently on a low heat.

Stir in the dissolved cornstarch and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth.

Add a small handful of cheese and stir while it melts, turning the mixture milky. Keep doing this, adding more cheese, stirring and melting, sometimes a splash more wine, and never stop stirring slowly. The times to add a tiny bit more wine are when the mixture becomes too thick. Remember that aim of the stringy cheese, and test as you go. It’s right when it’s right. Though you start on a very low heat, you can raise it slightly as you cook, if the cheeses are melting too slowly.

Stir in a pinch of nutmeg and let it bubble gently for a couple of minutes more. If adding Kirsch, do so about 5 minutes before it’s ready, so you can check that the mixture is as you want it to be.

And that’s when you gather everyone at the table, light the little burner, put the caquelon on top, pour everyone a glass of wine, and have another of those little moments when we remind ourselves that our friends, and our family, and moments like these, are what we all need, more than ever. DM/TGIFood

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here

Mervyn Gers Ceramics supplies dinnerware for the styling of some TGIFood shoots. For more information, click here.

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he’ll see them and respond.

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  • Tony Jackman’s FOOD STUFF is not a recipee book. It’s an inspiration I have been (not knowingly ) waiting for the better part of my long live. Just one example: Yesterday I made for the 3rd time Ratafia. “rata-what?” I heard in our bottle stores in the Hermanus area, so I used Drambui. Naturally I licked all the cooking tools before taking the delicasy to the table. I think I will write about the other parts of that extremely interting book, maybe to Tony privately? Thanks again, Thomas

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