Tracing fondue’s mysterious origins
A typical Swiss fondue comprises of melted cheese and wine set in a pot over an open flame. (Adrian Assalve/Getty)
After spending a day on the snow-covered Alps, convening with friends around a pot of bubbling fondue while sipping a glass of chilled white wine, is the ultimate après ski. And whether you are visiting a family-run restaurant in a mountain village or hitting the cobblestone streets of Geneva’s Old Town, fondue is as ubiquitous in Switzerland as chocolate or watches.
The story of fondue
Digging into a fondue may seem clichéd, but this quintessential Swiss dish has an epic, if ambiguous, history. Its first mention dates as far back as Homer’s Iliad from around 800 to 725 BC, where it was described as a mixture of goat’s cheese, wine and flour. In the late 17th Century, a Swiss cookbook, Kochbuch der Anna Margaretha Gessner, makes note of cooking cheese with wine. Others say peasants in the Swiss mountains created the dish as a way to make use of leftover bread and cheese during colder months when fresh produce was scarce. But modern fondue – melted cheese and wine set in a pot over an open flame – dates to the late 1800s, with roots in the French Rhône-Alpes region near the Geneva border. Fast forward to 1930 when the Swiss Cheese Union declared it the country’s national dish – and the Swiss have not looked back since.
Fondue’s hazy history means that following its food trail is a challenge, but its connection to French-speaking Switzerland makes Geneva a good place to start. Walk through the winding streets of the city’s medieval Old Town in the winter and the distinct smell of cheese wafts out of restaurants and apartment windows. Here, fondue is almost invariably moitié-moitié – half-and-half – made with gruyère and Fribourg-style vacherin (cow’s milk) cheeses. A hard, nutty cow’s milk cheese, gruyère is one of Switzerland’s most famous, originating from the town of Gruyères, set on the Alpine foothills in the canton of Fribourg. Also from cow’s milk, vacherin from Fribourg is a firm cheese with an acidic-meets-creamy-and-woodsy flavour, not unlike an Italian fontina. Traditionally, the two varieties are grated and melted together with a hint of garlic, a splash of white wine and a touch of kirsch, cherry brandy. The resulting dish is served in an earthenware pot called a caquelon, which sits above a portable stove to ensure a constantly bubbling mixture, and long forks dip and swirl country-style bread into the pot. This is a communal affair so be ready to share.
Fondue is for locals
For a quintessential fondue experience, make like a local and head to La Buvette des Bains, a restaurant at the Bains des Paquis. Jutting out onto Geneva’s iconic Lac Leman, this is the city’s public beach and bathhouse, dating from the 1930s. Between September and April each year, the women’s changing rooms are converted into a covered restaurant where rows of communal tables and benches are flanked on either side by the lake.
Walking along the dock to the restaurant, the pungent smell of cheese and burning wood is immediately apparent. Order your fondue at the outside counter with a customary assiette Valasianne, a plate of pickles, pearl onions and dried meats from Switzerland’s Valais region in the upper Rhône Valley. Hot tea or cold white wine, preferably chasselas – known locally as fendant – are the only drinks locals will pair with fondue; rumour has it that anything else promises a case of indigestion.
Packed in tightly at narrow benches, you will almost certainly rub elbows with your neighbours. Once seated, prepare to dig into one of the best fondues the city has to offer. Large pieces of crusty bread are dipped into the dish, made here with copious amounts of local sparkling white wine and garlic. Waiters will happily scrape up the amber crust of golden cheese that sits the bottom of the pot and cut it for the table to share.