When I hear the word fondue, I am reminded of 1970s dinner parties with four to six people sitting around a table dipping bread into a warm bowl of melted cheese or dipping chunks of beef into a pot of bubbling oil. In either case, much wine was consumed and many opinions were espoused. These meals were simple to prepare and clean up was easy. Back then, judging by how many newlyweds received multiple fondue pots as wedding gifts, people must have thought of fondue as the ideal meal for people with limited cooking ability.
Like most fads, fondue fell out of favor, except in Switzerland. But even there, on one business trip in 1980, I had a hard time convincing my Swiss hosts to take me out for fondue. It wasn’t until a trip in 1996 that I finally ate fondue in Switzerland. Now, many years later, the popularity of fondue seems to be rising again.
In 2004 and 2005, I spent a number of weeks working in the kitchen of a French restaurant in the old village of Gruyères, Switzerland. Just about every restaurant in the village served fondue, but we were the exception. So I still didn’t have a chance to eat fondue in the village, that is, until my last visit when I ate one of the best fondues I’ve ever enjoyed. It was served in the private apartment of the chef, and of course we had to talk fondue. The chef was raised in the Franche-Comte, the region of France just west of Switzerland. He told of how fondue jurassienne was a common dish of the region, and how it was better than the fondue vaudoise we were eating.1 He went on to say how this centuries-old peasant dish was just a way to consume old cheese and old bread.
So is fondue French or Swiss in origin? There isn’t a simple answer, and I was not able to find a definitive answer in my research. If there was one particular day in history when the first fondue was made, no one bothered to make a note of it. Some online sources claim fondue started in Neuchâtel, which would make it not of either Swiss or French origin.2 Neuchâtel was an independent principality until 1815 when it joined the Swiss federation.3
Books about French cookery that purport to provide the history of fondue generally point to Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s Physiologie du goût, ou Méditations de gastronomie transcendante as the source of the first published recipe for fondue. This work was first published in December of 1825 and is still in print.4 Brillat-Savarin’s fondue is a bit different from today’s fondue:
Pesez le nombre d’oeufs que vous voudrez employer d’après le nombre de convives. Vous prendrez ensuite un morceau de bon fromage de Gruyère pesant le tiers, et un morceau de beurre pesant le tiers de ce poids. Vous casserez et battrez bien les oeufs dans une casserole ; après quoi vous y mettrez le beurre et le fromage râpé ou émincé.
Posez la casserole sur un fourneau bien allumé, et tournez avec une spatule, jusqu’à ce que le mélange soit convenablement épaissi et mollet ; mettez-y un peu ou point de sel suivant que le fromage sera plus ou moins vieux, et une forte proportion de poivre, qui est un des caractères positifs de ce mets antique(!) ; servez sur un plat légèrement échauffé ; faites apporter le meilleur vin, qu’on boira rondement : et on verra des merveilles.5
Or in English:
Weigh the number of eggs you want to use, relative to the number of your guests. Then take a piece of a good quality Gruyère that weighs one-third and a piece of butter that weighs one-sixth. Break the eggs into a saucepan and beat well. Then add the butter and the cheese which has been grated or thinly sliced.
Place the saucepan on the stove over medium-high heat and stir with a [wooden] spatula until the mixture becomes thick and soft. Add some salt, or none if the cheese is old, and a fair amount of pepper, since this is one of the important characteristics of this time-honored dish. Serve the dish on a heated plate. Provide the best wine, which will be quickly drunk, and you will see miracles.
Brillat-Savarin attributed the recipe6 to “the papers of M. Trolliet, bailiff of Mondon, in the Canton of Berne”—a minor error since Mondon was in reality in the Canton of Vaud, which is French speaking and was independent of Switzerland until 1803,7 and not Berne, where a dialect of German is spoken.8
Brillat-Savarin acknowledges that this fondue “is nothing more or less than eggs scrambled with cheese, in certain proportions which time and experience have set.”9 He goes on to say that this is a great dish to serve when unexpected guests arrive. He follows this with a story:
It is a healthful, savory, and appetizing dish, quickly prepared, and always ready to do honor to the table if unexpected guests arrive. What is more, I discuss it here solely for my own pleasure, and also because the mention of it reminds me of something which is still remembered by the old men of the district of Belley.
Toward the end of the seventeenth century, a Monsieur de Madot was appointed Bishop of Belley, and arrived there to take possession of his diocese.
Those who were in charge of receiving him and doing him the honors of his own palace had prepared a banquet worthy of the event, and had taken advantage of every resource of the old-time cookery to celebrate Monsignor’s arrival.
Among the side dishes was a generous fondue, from which the prelate served himself without stint. But, oh surprise! Not recognizing its appearance and believing it to be a crème, he ate it with his spoon instead of using his fork, which from time immemorial had been the custom with this dish.
All the guests, astonished by this peculiar behavior, looked sideways at one another, with imperceptible smiles. Respect, however, stilled every tongue, for whatever a bishop from Paris does at table, especially on the day of his arrival, cannot but be well done.
News traveled fast, however, and from the next morning everybody one met would ask, “Well, and do you know how our new bishop ate his fondue last night?” “Of course I know! He ate it with a spoon! I have it from an eye witness…” and so on. The town reported the news to the country, and after three months it was public gossip throughout the diocese.
The remarkable thing about it is that this incident failed to shake the foundations of our ancestors’ faith. There were some seekers after novelty who supported the cause of the spoon, but they were soon forgotten: the fork triumphed, and after more than a century one of my great-uncles was still laughing over it, and told me, with a great gust of laughter, how it was that M. de Madot had indeed one time eaten his fondue with a spoon.10
In the same year that Brillat-Savarin published his recipe for fondue, an English physician, “many years resident on the continent,”11 was publishing a more involved recipe for fondue au fromage.
Make a sort of pap12 with half a pint of cream or good milk and potato flour; add a little salt. When the pap is boiled enough, put to it four yolks of eggs, half a pound of grated gruyère or Parmesan cheese, and lastly, four whites of eggs, whipped till en neige. Stir the whole well together. Next, pour the pap into a mould, place it over a stove covered with a lid, and fire on the top. It will be done enough in ten minutes, when it should be quickly served and eaten.13
This fondue au fromage seems a bit like a cheese souffle.
Antoine Gogué published a recipe in 1856 for fondue ou œufs brouillés au fromage (fondue or scrambled eggs with cheese) that is almost a carbon copy of Brillat-Savarin’s recipe.14 Twelve years later in 1868, Pierre Blot published a recipe for “fondue of eggs” which seems to be a word-for-word copy of the same recipe except he calls for stirring the mixture with a wooden spoon.15 Dumas, in 1873, includes another unattributed copy of Brillat-Savarin’s recipe in his cookbook.16 In 1890, Emilie Lebour-Fawssett presented both Brillat-Savarin’s anecdote and recipe, but she added that the mixture had to be stirred with a silver spoon.17 By the time Madame Saint-Ange includes a recipe for fondue in her La Bonne cuisine in 1927, the recipe no longer includes eggs—just cheese, wine, flour, garlic, soda, and seasoning—what most people today think of as fondue au fromage.18
There are many variations of fondue au fromage, but they differ mainly by which cheese the recipe uses:
The last two fondues in the list refer to regional specialties of France, whereas the others refer to regions of Switzerland.
In modern France, fondue probably refers as much to a manner of preparing and eating food at the table as it does to a specific dish. Step into Kitchen Bazaar20 or the housewares department of one the department store chains in France and you’ll find a variety of fondue pots for sale. There are both ceramic and metallic versions. There are some that heat the pot with a flame and others that plug into the wall. The styles range from plain and highly functional to bizarre and fanciful. And there must be something else that you can do with these appliances besides preparing fondue au fromage. One popular cooking magazine recently published ten recipes applicable to a soirée fondue (fondue party), and only a couple involved dipping cubes of bread into melted cheese.21
Modern fondues can be divided into two categories: those where some ready-to-eat food item is dipped into a warm sauce and those where the food item is cooked in hot liquid. Fondue au fromage falls into the first category. The other common version to fit the first category is fondue chocolat—where fruit or cubes of cake are dipped into a simple chocolate sauce—a fondue that originated in New York City.22
The best known of the second category of fondues is fondue bourguignonne where small cubes of beef are cooked in hot oil and then dipped into a cold sauce before eating. Most references place the origin of beef fondue as New York City in 1956,23 but there is at least one unreferenced source that claims it was first prepared among the grapes during harvest time in the Burgundy region of France.24 They claim that a “lazy monk, Johann du Putzxe, had the idea of heating oil to dunk-cook pieces of the meat taken from the Abbot’s private supplies, so that he could eat on the run.” Sounds interesting, but I’ve yet to find a recipe for beef fondue in any book that is dated earlier than 1956.
Other fondue variations include cooking thin strips beef in a mixture of boiling stock from pot-au-feu and wine; cooking seafood in a fumet de poisson;25 marinating pork ribs in garlic, soy sauce, and sugar for 12 hours before cooking them in hot oil; and cooking little packages of mushrooms wrapped in veal, pineapple wrapped in chicken, and beef wrapped in bacon in the hot oil.
Rather than focusing on a particular fondue recipe, it may be best to just think of fondue as a style of eating. Although it is possible to prepare fondue for one, a fondue is best eaten in a group. With fondue, the table conversation is possibly as important as the food. Although I’ve had many, many fine meals in France, some of the most enjoyable ones have been spent sitting around a fondue pot with a couple of friends and a bottle or two of wine. If your fondue pot is secluded away in the back of your closet, I’d suggest digging it out and reintroducing yourself to sharing some fondue with friends.