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.
Moving away from the lake, up the winding, steep hills of Geneva’s Old Town, sits another local favourite, Les Armures. Set inside a building from the 16th Century, this wooden-beamed, rustic restaurant is nestled below the Hotel Les Armures, one of the city’s finest. Here the food is unpretentious and the fondue memorable. Enjoy it on the restaurant’s terrace on cool, autumn days, or cosily inside when the air gets frigid. For the perfect after-dinner delight, end the evening with a walk through the historic Old Town along the city’s centuries-old walls and past the Cathédrale St-Pierre, where the founding figure of the Protestant religion, John Calvin, gave weekly sermons in the 1540s.
Make like a tourist
Though Geneva is a good place to start your fondue trail, following its path will inevitably take you outside of the city too. At Gare Cornavin, the city’s main train station, you can hop on a train heading northeast and in less than 130km you will find yourself in the picturesque village of Gruyères. Tucked between the grand Mount Moléson and rolling hills dotted with cows, this is where some of the best Swiss cheese has been created for centuries. Stone fountains, cobbled streets and geranium-lined shutters evoke a fairytale setting. But it is the cheese you are after. At the Fromagerie d’Alpage, witness the fromager, or cheese maker, bring gruyère and other classics to life over a steaming cauldron and open fire.
History and culinary tradition runs deep here. Gruyère cheese is said to have been enjoyed by the Romans and was given its namesake as early as 1602. To make it, fresh milk from grass or hay-fed cows within a 20km radius is poured raw into a copper pot and heated until it begins to curdle. Once a solid layer has formed at the top of the cauldron, the curds are cut then separated from the whey, pressed into a large mould and set to age in a high-humidity cellar. The rind is washed and salted throughout the aging process, which lasts anywhere from six months to three years. The older it is, the sharper the flavour, with strong notes of hazelnut and buttery caramel.
It is hard to avoid the temptation to linger and sample the fromagerie’s creamy in-house fondue, but head to the village centre and snag a table at Le Chalet instead. This restaurant may be touristy, but a fondue here, followed by meringues dunked into Gruyères’ infamous double cream, promises to satiate every dairy desire.
Bringing the tradition home
Ask the Swiss where to find the best fondue, and they will often give the same answer: at home.
For an authentic blend of cheeses, visit the dairy trucks that open their doors at Geneva farmers’ markets. On Saturdays, stop by the bustling marché (market) which lines the streets just outside the city’s main food market, Halle de Rive, and stroll around the produce and flower vendors that sit beside dairy stands. Often, they will have their own fondue mix, already grated and packaged, ready for you to take home.
An earthenware pot is just as easy to pick up, though bypass the ones in the tourist shops. Follow locals and duck into a department store for an authentic and reliable fondue set, typically painted red and splashed with white crosses in homage to the Swiss flag. At the upscale shop Globus, a wide selection of pots is on offer, often with beautiful vintage detailing. In their downstairs food store, fendant wines and fondue blends are available, including those with flakes of truffle or laced with Champagne.
A Swiss icon
Where ever you are in Switzerland, particularly come ski season, a remarkable fondue experience is never far. A rich, buttery fondue at night in a mountaintop village blanketed by snow is magical. So too is a silky fondue served on a Zurich terrace, where guests wrapped in woolly blankets plunge potatoes into steaming pots. In Ticino, the country’s Italian region, forgo the pizza and sample a fondue with fontina cheese or truffles. Because Switzerland is as small as it is – and fondue as national as it is – the bottom of another fondue pot is always nearby.