Cheese fondue in Switzerland: A guide to the cheesy Swiss classic
There are many things people picture when they think of Switzerland. The stunning mountains, lakes and rivers to name but three. However, one dish takes centre stage when people imagine a stereotypically Swiss meal: cheese fondue. Here’s all you need to know about this cheesy treat.
What is fondue?
Fondue is a melted cheese dish that has its origins in Switzerland and France. To create the fondue, Swiss cheese, and a number of other ingredients, are melted down over a portable stove. Once the cheese is melted, people gather around the communal pot and use long-stemmed forks or skewers to dunk hunks of bread into the cheesy concoction before eating them.
Types of cheese fondue
While the typical fondue recipe only features cheese, white wine, garlic and Kirsch - a cherry liqueur - over the years, several variations have emerged including chocolate fondue, fondue chinoise (which uses stock to cook meat in a communal pot) and fondue bourguignon (the same but with oil instead of stock).
Some of the most popular variations include:
- Vaudoise: Gruyère
- Moitié-moitié (half and half): Gruyère and Vacherin Fribourgois
- Appenzeller: Appenzeller cheese with cream
- Innerschweiz: Gruyère, Emmental and Sbrinz
- Fribourgeoise: Vacherin Fribourgois, and potatoes are used instead of bread and water is used instead of wine
- Neuchâteloise: Gruyère and Emmental
- Tomato: Gruyère, Emmental and crushed tomatoes
- Spicy: Gruyère, red and green peppers and chilli
A brief history of Swiss fondue
While it is now known as a Swiss classic, the origin of melting cheese in a communal pot and immersing other foods into said cheese is a difficult dish to nail down historically. Ancient Greek texts like Homer’s Illiad mention cooking goat’s cheese, wine and flour together as early as 800 BC.
Where did fondue originate?
Swiss cheese fondue has its origins in the French-speaking cantons of Fribourg and Valais. The word fondue is said to originate from the French word fondre, meaning to melt.
The first written record of fondue comes from a cookbook from Zurich published in 1699, which includes instructions on how to cook cheese with wine (Käss mit Wein zu Kochen).
However, if you were to ask someone to prepare a “cheese fondue” between the 17th and 19th centuries, what you would get would be quite alien to people today. Up until 1875, cheese fondue referred to a scrambled egg dish with cheese and cheese souffle. Many Swiss cantons and areas of Italy had their own spin on the strange dish, with Geneva adding cream, Piedmont adding truffles and Canton Valais adding melted cheese on top.
Origins of modern fondue
The first documented modern fondue dish was presented in 1875 in Neuchâtel. It’s here that we discover that, while recipes had not been written down, the dish was already a Swiss national tradition for a long time. However, in its early stages, the amount of rich cheese required to make the dish meant that it was mostly associated with rich people.
The idea of fondue being the national dish was created by the Swiss Cheese Union in the 1930s, which used fondue as a way to boost cheese consumption.
A massive advertising campaign ensued, which culminated in cheese fondue being served at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. It was there that fondue finally caught on in America, and today tourists flock to the alpine nation to try this somewhat manufactured national dish.
Eating fondue in Switzerland: When and where
While fondue can be enjoyed at any time of the year, especially in French-speaking areas, for most people the melted cheese dish should be eaten during the cold months of winter. The relatively simple recipe also makes it quite an easy dish to have at home.
Fondue at home
Much like its sister dish raclette - a dish involving melting squares of cheese onto boiled potatoes - fondue is ideal for gatherings of family and friends. The communal nature of the meal makes it a great centrepiece for any dinner party. What’s more, people can have as much, or as little, as they like!
After blasting down the mountain at a Swiss ski resort, you need a way to replenish your energy fast. While it can make you feel bloated, there is nothing more indulgent than having cheese fondue after exercise, especially when the weather is frigid.
Finally, whether it be a chalet in the Swiss Alps or a small bistro in a busy city, there are plenty of restaurants that will serve traditional fondue. You can usually smell whether a restaurant serves fondue before you can see it!
While a lot of restaurants will offer fondue, especially in tourist areas, the quality can vary dramatically so it's best to look up the restaurant online before you take the plunge.
Best fondue in Switzerland
To help you along, here is a selection of some of the best fondue restaurants for each Swiss city:
- Zurich: Chäsalp, Swiss Chuchi Restaurant, Le Dézaley
- Geneva: La Buvette des Bains, Café de Soleil, Restaurant Les Armures
- Lausanne: Restaurant Chalet Suisse, Pinte Besson, Vieil Ouchy
- Bern: Lötschberg, Le Mazot, Restaurant Rosengarten
- Basel: Walliser Kanne, Steinbock, Restaurant Safran Zunft Basel
What is the Christmas tradition in Switzerland surrounding fondue?
With it being such a recent delicacy, having fondue at Christmastime is a relatively young tradition in Switzerland. Typically, people in Switzerland have fondue on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Boxing Day. Once again, the communal nature of the meal is the main reason why the dish is served at Christmas.
Cheese fondue as a New Year’s tradition
Another more American tradition is to serve fondue on New Year’s Eve as a way of welcoming in the new year together with friends and family. Along with America, some areas of Switzerland have also taken up the tradition of having fondue on New Year’s.
How to eat fondue in Switzerland
People in Switzerland can be rather particular when it comes to cooking and eating fondue. From start to finish, there are a number of processes that need to be followed, regardless of where you are eating and who you are eating fondue with.
First, to prepare the fondue pot (often called a Caquelon), most recipes call for the bottom to be coated with a bruised garlic clove before the wine is poured and the cheese is gradually added over medium heat. Be sure to keep stirring!
Once melted, the pot is transferred to a cast iron stand called a Rechaud with a kerosene lamp. It is important to reduce the heat at this stage - we want the cheese to be melted, but not so hot that it starts to burn.
What foods do people in Switzerland dip in a cheese fondue?
In Switzerland, it is traditional to dip hunks of bread into the melted cheese, although some versions call for boiled potatoes to be used instead. While not used for dipping, most fondues also come with charcuterie, cornichons and other pickles.
Fondue étiquette in Switzerland
When you are ready to take your first bite, take a hunk of bread and spear it securely with your fork. Then, wait until the pot is clear before submerging your bread in the melted cheese.
Traditionally, you are meant to stir clockwise in a figure-of-eight motion to make sure the fondue is properly mixed. Once you have finished mixing, take the bread out and swirl it at least three times to allow the excess cheese to fall back into the pot.
An important note: do not scrape your cheese on the side of the pot and do not double dip! Once it's touched your mouth, your piece of bread shouldn't go back in the pot - but be careful about touching the fork as it could get quite hot.
A fun game to play is to invent forfeits if a person accidentally drops the bread into the fondue - like forcing them to do the washing up afterwards, for example.
If you have managed to regulate the temperature perfectly, at the end you should be left with a thin crust of toasted cheese at the bottom of the bowl called the Grossmutter (grandmother) or La Religieuse (the nun). It’s arguably the tastiest part of the whole dish, so don’t let it go to waste!
What drink should you have with cheese fondue?
Most fondue dishes will be served with dry and acidic white wines, usually from Canton Vaud, or Kirsch. Non-alcoholic beverages include herbal tea and other non-carbonated drinks.
Are you supposed to have carbonated drinks with fondue?
While you can have a beer, fizzy drinks or cold water while having fondue, you may get some funny looks from locals. According to legend, having sparkling water or other carbonated drinks with cheese fondue can clog up your digestive system. While not supported by science, is still a commonly held belief in some areas of Switzerland.
Make your own: Traditional Swiss fondue recipe
To help you make the perfect Swiss fondue, check out this guide from DW:
Video: DW Food / YouTube
What is your favourite type of fondue? Let us know in the comments below!