Fondue Fondness

In the ’60s and ’70s fondue parties were all the rage and were a prevalent and popular form of American social entertaining. We remember the days when no self-respecting cook was without a fondue pot. However, the trend seemed to die in large part because many of the fondue recipes produced disappointing results. Surprisingly or not, fondue is making something of a comeback.

The history of how fondues got their start is as interesting as it is diverse. There happen to be several different branches of the dining technique, each with its own country of origin and history. “Broth” fondue was born in Asia; “meat” fondue in Burgundy, France; “cheese” fondue in Switzerland and—as you might have guessed— “chocolate” fondue here in the good old USA.

Cheese fondue, perhaps the most classic of the four, has its origins way back in 18th century Switzerland, mostly out of dietary necessity. During the long winter months when Swiss farmers and villagers had little access to good foods, they discovered that they could turn old cheeses and stale breads into a tasty meal if they melted the cheese with wine and herbs and then dipped hunks of the hardened bread into it.

Thus began a tradition that lasted for hundreds of years and, in the middle of the 20th century, actually turned into a food fad enjoyed by millions. As it was concocted then, fondue consisted of a hot, thick, gooey cheese (Gruyere and Emmentaler were traditionally preferred, both for their nutty flavor and consistency when melted), along with a splash of kirsch (a cherry brandy) and a pinch each of cornstarch and nutmeg.

Once the cheese was melted in the pot (usually over a candle), diners used longish, two-pronged skewers to stab pieces of bread, and then twirled them in the melted fondue to coat them.

The popularity in the USA of fondue had a great deal to do with how communal it was and how closely it brought everyone at the table together to reach their skewers into the fondue pot. In time, though, as many Americans began watching their waistlines, cheese-based fondues seemed to go the way of a lot of other highly caloric foodstuffs.

But there’s a happy ending: Those bubbling pots of goodness are making a gloriously gooey renaissance. Restaurants such as The Melting Pot are making fondue popular again.

Especially popular these days are chocolate fondues in which kids of all ages dip a host of food items—strawberries, bananas, marshmallows, graham crackers and such—into creamy milk chocolate, and then make a mess of themselves trying to devour every last delectable bite. (Could there be anything that wouldn’t taste divine dipped in chocolate, we ask?)

Did You Know?

The earliest known recipe for cheese fondue comes from a 1699 book published in Zurich, Switzerland, with the name “Käss mit Wein zu kochen” (to cook cheese with wine). And, while many people believe that the term “fondue” refers to the type of cheese used in the process, in reality, the term has its origins in the French word “fondre,” which simply means, “to melt.”

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