A quick game of word association: I say “Swiss dish of rich, velvety, cheesy heaven”, you say?… If you said anything other than fondue, I think you might need to book your plane ticket right now. Wherever you go in beautiful Switzerland, this dish is impossible to miss, and even more impossible to forget. But before diving in bread-first, it’s helpful to know a bit of the history and etiquette behind this gooey, melty delicacy.
What is a fondue?
In Switzerland, fondue means cheese fondue (not chocolate, which, surprisingly, was only served at the really touristy places). Typically, it’s a combination of Swiss cheeses, such as Gruyere and Emmenthaler. The cheeses are accompanied by a dry white wine called Fendant or Chasselas Blanc, Kirsch (a morello-cherry brandy) and cornstarch. It’s then cooked over a flame and served in a small, communal, clay pot called a caquelon. For a more detailed breakdown of traditional ingredients and a great recipe, check out A Proper Swiss Cheese Fondue.
Where does it come from?
The word fondue comes from the french verb fondre, which means ” to melt”, and while that part makes sense, fondue’s history is an enigma. While the consensus maintains that Swiss fondue made its debut in the 1700s in the Swiss canton of Fribourg, talk of cooking cheese and wine was mentioned in Homer’s Iliad, a famous epic poem that dates back around 800 to 725 BC. For more history on this delicacy read BBC’s Tracing Fondue’s Mysterious Origins.
As luxurious as you might feel while twirling a fork full of bread and cheese fondue around a fire (and with Swiss prices, it’s not a far cry to call it a luxury), this meal had, actually, humble beginnings. It was a means of survival for peasants braving the winter months in the Swiss Alps. The bread they produced during the warmer months had to last them through the winter, which was difficult as it grew stale with time. However, they discovered that cooking the available aged cheeses in wine and garlic made a product that not only was delicious, but softened the stale bread and made it easier to eat. It grew in popularity and was declared Switzerland’s national dish in 1930 by the Swiss Cheese Union.
Fon-do it like a pro: Fondue Etiquette
Surprisingly, eating cheese fondue isn’t as simple as it is delicious. To blend in as much as possible with the locals, it is important to follow the rules fondue etiquette.
Make it a meal
As much as it might be tempting to treat cheese fondue like the Swiss version of chips and queso, if fondue is a part of the show— it’s the main attraction. While vegetables, a small salad or some prosciutto may be served before or alongside the fondue, typically it’s just you, the bread and the fondue. Restaurants will also serve cheese fondue in portions for 1-2 people, or for groups of around four. It’s often a hassle to split checks, so make sure you have that planned out beforehand, and come hungry!
Say “yes” to wine
Many touristy places will offer fondue without the wine. In fact, the wine can be replaced with some kind of cooking stock, but if you want to eat like a local, go for the wine.
But, say “no” to water
As far as beverages go, if you order anything but white wine (such as Fendant), kirsch, or herbal tea, you’re doing it wrong. This “rule” is a great example of how lore shapes cultural practices. These three beverages are normalised based on the idea that anything else—even water— will cause the cheese to ball up in your stomach and lead to horrific digestive issues. However, a recent study published in the British Medical Journal concluded that while alcohol might actually slow your digestive process, as long as you have a healthy digestive system, it really doesn’t matter what you drink. Needless to say, many of these rules of etiquette are based more in culture than in logic, but following them might spare you a few dirty looks.
Mind the Germs!
Since cheese fondue is typically a shared meal, it’s uncouth to dip your bread again after biting, and to touch your fondue fork to your mouth. So, make sure you avoid piercing the bread completely with your fork, and that you only bite the bread with the front of your teeth.
Clockwise, Figure-eight, or Zig-Zag
Remember: counter-clockwise is counter-cultural. Make sure that after you dip your bread, you move it in a clockwise, figure-eight, or zig-zag motion around the pot. Also be sure to lift your bread up over the pot to let the excess cheese drip off before putting it onto your plate. Whatever you do— don’t let the cheese sit for too long without stirring or it will harden and then party ends too early.
While the Swiss tend to a quieter, more-reserved bunch, when it comes to getting to the crispy cheese on the bottom of the pan, called la religieuse, it’s perfectly okay to scrape it off and share with your friends (trust me, it’s delicious). Your server might even take it off and plate it nicely for you.
Don’t Drop the Bread
Mind you, this might’ve just been my right of passage as a tourist eating with a group of locals, but I was told that whoever drops their bread in the pot pays. For my wallet’s sake, I didn’t question them at the time.
TAKEAWAY: Upon further investigation, the tradition is this: if a woman drops a piece of bread, she must kiss all of the men, but if a man drops it, he has to buy a bottle of wine. My advice to you: be careful unless you’re ready to pucker up or pull out your wallet!
Ultimately cheese fondue is delicious, and something to be cherished. It’s deeply rooted in Swiss history and, as you can see, is taken very seriously by those that made it famous. Now that you’ve got all the rules, grab a fork, call some friends and dig in!
If you’re looking for some great restaurants in Switzerland to try fondue at its finest, Fondue Season in Switzerland has some great ideas.