Cheese fondue is making a comeback. Not that it’s ever been out of style in Switzerland! Making cheese fondue at home at home is not as difficult as it seems. While a fondue pot is fun, it’s not necessary. Fondue was a big part of my childhood in the 60s and 70s. We’d spend Christmas in Aspen and every New Year’s Eve we’d go to the Tower Restaurant in Snowmass.
(I was hosted in by La Gruyère Tourism in Fribourg)
It’s the perfect indulgence for a special occasion like Christmas Eve, Valentine’s Day, apres ski, or just on a cold and cozy night by the fire. Here’s a guide to everything you need to know about traditional Swiss fondue. The recipe and some of the information comes from Nika Standen Hazelton’s book, The Swiss Cookbook, published in 1967. (Believe it or not, it’s still in print!) Plan a fondue night with classic Swiss cheese fondue and finish with decadent Chocolate Fondue!
Is cheese fondue Swiss or French?
A case could be argued for both, since both countries border the Alps. Briefly, the first record of fondue comes from 18th century French and Belgian cookbooks, however the cheese used was Swiss, so the Swiss claim it as their own. In addition, Italy, (which also shares a border with the Alps) has their own version of fondue called “fonduta”. It bears a resemblance to Swiss fondue, but uses Fontina cheese and egg yolks and milk in place of the wine.
What is fondue?
The word “fondue” comes from French word, “fondre”, meaning “to melt”. While fondue seems like a fancy dish reserved for an elegant dinner party, nothing could be further from the truth. Cheese fondue began as a peasant dish made in a communal pot that was shared with the entire family. This simple meal of bread and cheese was supplemented with boiled potatoes, pickled onions and gherkins and some dried or cured meat and maybe slices of apples.
History of fondue
If you go to the Swiss Alps, you’ll see an abundance of cows and sheep placidly grazing on the grasses. Many Swiss chalets are built into the mountains and count on the brief warm summer and fall months to collect milk from their livestock and make cheese.
Cheese, potatoes, sausage or cured meats, and bread were the main staples of the Swiss who lived in the secluded Alpen regions during the winter months. Often they’d have day old bread and hard cheese. One way to soften stale bread was to dip or dunk it in cheese.
Conversely, since the cheese was sometimes hard, melting it with a bit of wine was a great way to bring it back to life. Cheese fondue is most common to the western cantons of Switzerland, in the villages and towns nestled in the Alpen regions. It’s also more common to find it on a menu in the autumn, winter or early spring, as it’s an ideal meal for colder weather. You can read about another Swiss alpine area in this post about the Aletsch Arena in Valais-Wallis. If you’d like to try another typical Swiss dish, here’s a recipe for the country’s official national dish, Rösti.
What types of cheese are best for fondue?
Gruyère cheese is the most traditional cheese for cheese fondue, so let’s talk about the cheese. I recently took a trip to La Gruyère which is a region in the canton of Fribourg. Le Gruyère AOP is the Swiss cheese produced in the area. Lastly, Gruyères (with an “s”) is the Medieval town in Fribourg.
I was able to visit the cheese factory, in Gruyères which produces Le Gruyères AOP recently. If you want truly authentic Swiss fondue, search for the AOP symbol. Most major supermarkets, Costco and Trader Joe’s often carry DOP or AOP cheeses. Look for the AOC symbol to ensure the cheese you purchase is authentic Gruyère cheese.
- A well aged Gruyere will produce the strongest, most traditional flavor.
- Use a combination of Emmental and Gruyere if aged Gruyere is too strong.
- Using all Emmental cheese will result in the mildest version of cheese fondue.
What can I substitute for Gruyère cheese?
If you’re not able to find Gruyère cheese, there are a few options. Emmental cheese is a product of central Switzerland, and is also a registered AOP cheese. While similar in flavor to Gruyère, it’s more mild and has more holes, similar to the common Swiss cheese we see in the grocery store. Other good substitutes for Gruyère are French Comte and Italian Fontina cheese (perfect for Fonduta!). In a pinch a domestic “Swiss” cheese can be used.
What does AOP mean?
AOP stands for appellation d’origine protégée. The English translation is “Protected Designation of Origin. The AOP symbol on Le Gruyères cheese guarantees the cheese meets the following criteria of tradition, limited production zone, and history and “know-how”. I was hosted the factory, La Maison du Gruyère in October, and was able to see the cheesemaking process. You can find out more about visiting the wonderful culinary and travel adventures in the Fribourg region of Switzerland here.
- History: While this cheese has been in production since 1115 in the La Gruyere region, it wasn’t until 1655 that the name Gruyère became associated with this particular local cheese.
- Limited production zone: In addition to the Fribourg region, it may also be produced in Vaud, Neuchâtel, and Jura.
3. Know how and tradition: Le Gruyeres cheese is produced using the same methods that have been used for hundreds of years. Each wheel is marked during production with both the name of the dairy, and the date it was produced. Strict guidelines for the collection, and manufacturing, rotation and aging of the cheese are followed.
What can you make Swiss fondue in if you don’t have a fondue pot?
If you don’t own an electric fondue pot, a heavy oven-proof pot can be used. The important thing is to keep the fondue at a constant temperature without burning the bottom of the pot and the cheese.
A double boiler will also work. I love this reasonably priced stainless steel fondue set. Here’s a beautiful, but pricier traditional cast iron Swiss fondue pot with Swiss floral pattern and flag. Another make shift fondue burner is to place a heavy pot on an electric griddle. A small slow cooker is another option.
Ingredients for authentic Swiss cheese fondue
The recipe and notes for this post come from The Swiss Cookbook by Nika Standen Hazelton, 1967.
- Shredded or cubed Gruyère cheese. (See notes for substitutions)
- Dry white wine. Choose a light, slightly acidic wine like Sauvignon Blanc, dry Riesling, or a Pinot Grigio. The acidity helps to liquify the cheese and aides in the melted cheese blending.
- A little lemon juice helps add to the acidity.
- Clove of garlic.
- Splash of kirsch or brandy.
- A little bit of cornstarch
- Seasonings: A pinch of nutmeg, white pepper and paprika (not smoked).
How do you make classic cheese fondue?
- Shred or cube cheese. Toss with cornstarch.
- Rub the inside of a fondue pot with a peeled garlic clove.
- Pour 1 1/2 cups dry white wine into fondue pot and set over moderate heat. When air bubbles rise to surface, add lemon juice. Reserve 1/2 cup of wine to add later if the fondue gets too thick.
- Add shredded cheese by the handfuls, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Until the cheese begins to melt.
- Add Kirsch or brandy and spices, stirring fondue until well blended.
- Keep fondue bubbly hot over burner, turning down heat as needed. If the fondue becomes too thick, add a splash of white wine.
Store any leftover cheese fondue in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
What do you serve with cheese fondue?
Traditionally cheese fondue is a meal in itself. Of course, stale bread is no longer used, cubed French bread or Italian bread is the perfect fondue dipper. Serve Swiss fondue with some dried meat, speck, or prosciutto, boiled baby potatoes, sour gherkins or cornichons, pickled onions, and cherry tomatoes or wedges of tomatoes. Apple slices are a delicious addition as well.
- Cubes of French bread.
- Pickled sour gherkins or cornichons.
- Pickled onions.
- Boiled new potatoes.
- Cherry tomatoes, slices or wedges.
- Slices of apples.
How to throw a fondue party
A fondue party is a fun way to entertain a small group. Here are some tips and suggestions.
- Serve a small Charcuterie Board (skip the cheeses) or Rosemary Roasted Almonds during cocktail hour, It’s can be a fairly heavy meal, so keep it light. The remaining charcuterie will carry over perfectly when it’s time to serve the fondue.
- Have all the cheese shredded and ready to go. The fondue takes just minutes to finish once the prep work is done.
- Have all the accoutrements ready to go: pre boil the potatoes and keep them warm in the oven. Season them with salt and melted butter.
- Place bowls of sour gherkins or cornichons, pickled onions, tomatoes, and sliced apples in small dishes around the fondue pot or on a Lazy Susan. Place the bread cubes in a large bowl.
- If you’re not serving a charcuterie board, plan about an ounce or two of speck or prosciutto for each person.
- Small appetizer plates and cocktail napkins work well.
- For dessert, Chocolate Fondue is the perfect option! Use small butter warmer or Chocolate Fondue Pot and a variety of fresh fruit and pound cake.
Swiss Cheese Fondue
- Dredge the shredded cheese with cornstarch.
- Rub the inside of a fondue pot or heavy pot with a garlic clove. Set fondue pot to a moderate temperature.
- Pour in 1 1/2 cups wine, reserving 1/2 cup to thin the fondue if necessary. when air bubbles rise to surface, add lemon juice.
- Add shredded cheese by handfuls, stirring with a wooden spoon until the cheese is melted.
- Add Kirsch or brandy, a pinch each of nutmeg, white pepper and paprika, stirring to blend.
- Serve with crusty French or Italian bread cubes.
- See notes in post about cheese substitutions for Gruyere.
- Reserve 1/2 cup wine to thin down fondue if it becomes too thick.
- This recipe will serve 4-6 as a main dish with accompaniments and 8-10 as an appetizer.