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Fondue: A Culinary Revival

September 4th, 2009

swiss-cheese-fondue.jpgFondue pots seem to be given the same nostalgic attention as the linoleum kitchen table and avocado green appliances that were the height of fashion in the 1950s and 1960s. In other words, we retain for them a fondness that is associated with memories of home, but they are something we’d never want to have now. Others groan upon receiving a fondue pot as the quirky wedding gift that nobody really has any use for but all of us have one collecting dust in a cupboard. While the fondue phenomenon which reached its heyday in the fifties through to the seventies seemed to almost fade into nonexistence, it is facing a revival that has avant garde chefs scurrying to update recipes and trying to incorporate the fondue experience into modern day menus.

Even though fondue is being recognized as a culinary experience and is classified as haute cuisine, the history of fondue comes from much more humble beginnings. Fondue is likely a Swiss invention that was born of necessity. Meaning “to melt”, fondue comes from the French verb fondre. Swiss peasants, who were forced by economic hardship to use every single edible bit of food they had, realized that the hard rinds of cheeses became much easier to eat when melted over the fire.

There is some evidence to support the argument that fondue originated in France, mostly supported by the publication of Physiologie du Goût, ou Méditations de Gastronomie Transcendante by Jean Anthelme Brilla-Savarin in 1825. His book contains the first published recipe for fondue, though his fondue is a cooked combination of eggs and cheese which would result in more of a soufflé. Nonetheless, this publication supports the theory that fondue originated in France, and that this is the technique which has evolved into the fondue we know today.

Regardless of its actual origin, one fact remains constant: the first fondues were made from melted cheeses, typically Emmenthaler or Gruyere cheeses. Hard or stale heels of bread were the common dipper, though more likely the melted cheese was spread over the bread trencher rather than the bread cut into delicate like-sized cubes and dipped into a cast iron or porcelain bowl filled with the melt.

The influx of European immigrants in the 1800s brought with them the fondue technique of melting cheeses and it wasn’t long before it began to be integrated into the professional kitchen. Once chefs and restaurants began experimenting with the art of melting cheese and using breads to dip into it, the next logical step of the fondue evolution was dipping meats into oil and broths to cook them. In 1952, Chef Konrad Egli of the Chalet Swiss restaurant in New York introduced the technique of cooking cubes of meat in hot oil. This revolutionary technique and culinary experience catapulted the once humble fondue into popularity. This style of fondue is known as fondue bourguignonne, but equally popular is the method of cooking meat cubes in a boiling broth.

Chef Konrad Egli is also accredited with having created the chocolate fondue, which debuted in 1964.

Originally cheese fondue was simply melted cheese. The popular method of preparing cheese fondue came to include garlic, wine, and cherry liqueur. Today of course, the ingredients in cheese fondue are limited only by our imaginations. The original dippers were bread, but now everything from green apples to cauliflower are being dipped in the cheese, in addition to a variety of artisanal breads.

Not only have the fondue ingredients changed over time, but so to has the complexity of fondue paraphernalia. Fondue pots can be simple or elaborate; made of cheap materials or expensive. You can purchase a fondue pot or an entire set including sectioned plates, ramekins to hold various sauces and demitasse spoons for ladling out sauces. Heat sources can be a lowly tea candle, or a sterno pot. Forks can be designer or simply color coded so there’s no mix up when cooking or dipping.

Fondue should not be limited to one particular recipe, but should rather be considered as a style of eating best suited to a social gathering. Never meant to be enjoyed alone, a group of friends and a few bottles of wine are all you need to fully experience the fondue, whose culinary revival is being ushered along by fondue restaurants that specialize in this gourmet experience. Sales of fondue pots and sets have surged, and new fondue recipe books are appearing to replace those dusty inherited cookbooks.

Now that fondue has again become fashionable, dust off that fondue pot which is probably still in the original box circa 1964; it will work just fine. Invite some friends over, open a bottle of wine, and enjoy!

Jennifer Allen is a professional writer who holds an Honors B.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto and has been published in a variety of venues. Her secondary love of all things food led to a career as a chef before she returned to full time status as a freelance writer.

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