Friday, February 12, 2010

Fon-doooooooo!

It seems like fondue is thought of by most North Americans as a thing of the past, a strange and short-lived fad in the popular culture of the 60’s and 70‘s. Fondue reminds many - including me, which is odd since I was born in the 80’s - of bell-bottoms, turtle-necks, flippy Farrah Fawcett hair, and old boxes in browns, reds, and golden yellows holding strange contraptions from back when wood panelling was cool and kitchens featured too many olive green appliances.

Here in Switzerland, the birthplace of fondue, this dish is still very much in vogue. Geneva features a number of notable fondue establishments (and many not-so-notable ones), and I decided that while he was visiting this week, I would take Drew to the Numero Uno of all fondue places here: le Cafe du Soleil. This little place in Petit Sacconex is not much to look at on the outside, nor inside actually, but in the brightly-lit, packed-with-tables interior, one finds piles of Genevois and Ex-Pats alike. One is well advised to make reservations a few days in advance to get a table, as the house’s two stories fill up every night of the week with fondue connoisseurs.

Fondue is traditionally a cheese and bread dish. Chocolate versions, or fondues with meats or vegetables, are actually non-Swiss mutations of the original, and as such one should not expect to see any greenery or meat products served in a real fondue house. Fondue - which literally means ‘melted’, from French ‘fondre’, to melt - has its origins in the long cold winters of the Alps, so the story goes, because Swiss peasants would rely on cheese and bread made in the summer and harvest periods to get them through the winter months. The cheese would get so dry and the bread so stale that they were actually inedible. The resourceful Swiss discovered that when melted, the cheese became palatable, and when dipped in steaming hot cheese, the bread was soft and tasty. And so it was that fondue was born!

Fondue in Cafe du Soleil
There are actually two cheeses in fondue, both Swiss: Emmentaler (this is the one with the holes, that many people simply call ‘Swiss cheese’), and Gruyere, which has made its namesake-town famous the world over. These cheeses are mixed because alone the Emmentaler would be too bland and the Gruyere too sharp. The cheese is put into a pot called a ‘caquelon’, and dry white wine is added so that the cheese doesn’t burn when it starts to heat up over a flame. Garlic is standard, some people will add other herbs to taste, and some flour is thrown in to keep the two cheeses from separating from each other. Let the cheese melt and boil and bubble, add some delicious crusty bread, and violà! Fondue for everyone!  Try getting that out of shag carpet.

The fondue at Cafe du Soleil is truly excellent. They serve straight-forward fondue - no fancy stuff - and the bread is fresh-baked and cut thick. Drew and I ordered fondue for two, as they will only bring one pot, sized accordingly, and stacks of bread, and we had a dry Swiss sauvignon blanc with it, which complimented the cheese wonderfully.

Fondue is a sharing dish, but it is important to remember that each person has their fondue-fork and their very own area of the cheese pot. The Swiss are considerate and rule-oriented people, and the original fondue-eaters enjoyed the social and community nature of fondue while respecting each person at the fondue pot’s special area of cheese. It is very much NOT OK to stick your fondue fork in someone else’s cheese-area.  There was a couple at a table near us who were also eating fondue, but the man at the table did not know the cheese-area rule. He kept picking up the pot that he and his dinner companion were sharing, and scraping his bread across the diameter of the pot. Quel faux pas! It was unpleasant to watch, and man, could he ever pack away that cheese and bread.

Drew and I couldn’t make it through all of ours in the end. As you can imagine, fondue is a rich and heavy meal, and with the wine our eyes began to get heavy 3/4 of the way through the meal. At the Cafe du Soleil the bread and cheese helpings are generous, and the cost is Geneva-reasonable (Fr. 22 per person). I wouldn’t go every day, or even every week since I’m sure it’s got to be bad for you somehow, but I sure do recommend it to anyone passing through Switzerland.

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