Monday, June 20, 2011

Lost and Fondue

One summer a number of years ago, I packed up and moved to Switzerland for three months. I rented a room in a 17th-century villa on a steep, cobblestone street in Boudry, the canton of Neuchâtel. By day, I worked as a machine translation analyst in Cortaillod, the next village over and an easy ten-minute walk from my room in Boudry. Evenings found me exploring my new temporary home, sipping hot chocolate and eating French pastries in the local cafes, exploring the winding streets and picture-perfect squares, and practicing my rudimentary French on anyone willing to listen. Weekends, I’d take the local train into the city of Neuchâtel, a pleasant half-hour ride through a landscape of rolling green meadows and vineyards. And always, I was on the trail of the perfect cheese fondue.

The search was a cinch because wherever I went, people were always asking, “have you ever eaten real Swiss fondue?”

The only possible response to that was, “no, but I’d love to try it.” Each time, I hoped no one could read my mind and discover all the previous occasions in recent weeks that I’d “tried” a real Swiss fondue for the "first" time.

I can’t say whether I ever found the perfect fondue, since each one I sampled was equally memorable. But one particular meal turned out to be unforgettable.

One weekend, some friends from Boudry invited me to go hiking in the nearby Jura Mountains. The trek took us up a narrow trail through leafy forests and clearings that offered stunning vistas of the undulating, green landscape: forested hills and meadows where grazing cows looked like the figurines you see in Swiss tourist shops. After a couple of hours, we stopped at a one-room shack that offered overnight shelter for long-distance hikers. It had wooden bunks at one end, a stove at the other, and a wooden picnic table out front.

While one friend went off to chill bottles of white wine in the mountain spring and another hooked up a propane bottle to the cabin stove (you had to bring your own), I sat down at the table and started grating cheese. Now I knew why my Swiss pals had been toting such heavy backpacks for a one-day’s jaunt into the wilderness.

Maybe it was the long, hot hike that made the food so appealing. Or the fresh mountain air and the relaxing sight of green hills framed against a clear blue sky. Or maybe it was just the jokes, laughter, and stories that accompanied the meal (including one preposterous tale about the time someone poured vast amounts of absinthe into Boudry’s Fontaine de la Justice on the patron saint's day and got the revelers’ roaring drunk). But I can still taste that fondue: the salty, molten cheese, the slight tang from the wine, the chewiness of the crusty bread.

Photo by Cedric Trachsel
There is no clear agreement on where and when fondue originated. Some accounts say it began with goat herders in Neuchâtel, others claim it originated in nearby Valais, while still others say it’s not originally Swiss at all but was invented in Savoy, a historical region between Switzerland and France. One of the earliest recipes comes from a 17th-century Zurich cookbook, which describes it as “cheese cooked with wine.”

In the 1930s the Swiss Cheese Union promoted fondue as Switzerland’s national dish in an attempt to boost cheese sales. Every region has its own version, using different mixes of local cheeses that give the regional varieties different flavors and textures. In Neuchâtel, the cheeses are Gruyere and Emmenthaler. This, my Boudry friends insist, is the authentic version because, like everyone else, they claim their canton to be the true birthplace of fondue.

Here is the recipe for the fondue I enjoyed during my hike into the Jura Mountains (proportions are approximate, since we didn’t measure anything and I wrote down the recipe only after returning to town):

1 clove garlic, halved
225 grams (½ lb.) Gruyere cheese, grated
225 grams (½ lb.) Emmenthaler cheese, grated
¼ liter (about 1 cup) dry white wine
2 tablespoons kirsch
1 tablespoon potato starch or cornstarch
day-old baguettes, cut into cubes with a piece of crust left on each one (helps them stay on the fork)
Freshly grated pepper

Rub the inside of a heavy-bottomed pot with the garlic clove and discard. Heat the wine over medium heat without boiling. Add the grated cheese and stir constantly in a figure-eight pattern until the cheese melts. Dissolve the starch in the kirsch and add to the pot. When everything is bubbling remove from the heat and season with pepper. Dip the bread into the fondue and enjoy. Pair with wine or hot herbal tea, but avoid cold beverages, which can give you a nasty bellyache.

Bon appétit!


  1. Though I've never quite understood the concept of camping, I love this story of getting lost in the wilderness to cook a gourmet meal. What a fun piece--I feel like I was there. Can't wait to try out this recipe. Though I might need a dictionary...

  2. I've never been an avid camper either, but I like day trips into nature. One of the thing I love about the Swiss is that there's always food at the top of a mountain. :) Something to aim for when you're struggling up the steep incline and wondering why you didn't opt for an afternoon in a nice quiet cafe instead.

  3. Hmmm, I don't think I ever tasted the real fondue then, cenrtainly not if it was cooked with wine. Gotta try it one day!