While no longer as popular as it was in the 1970s, fondue deserves its exalted place in culinary discoveries and fads. There are some restaurants which still serve this wonderful dish exclusively. Those old enough to remember its heyday have happy memories of friends gathered around a pot of hot cheese or oil, dipping away. The true gourmet host might feature all three types: cheese for bread, oil for meat, and chocolate for dessert.
The actual name is taken from the French word fondre which means “to melt.” But it was the Swiss who originally created the cheese fondue in the 18th century. It seems that cheese got old and bread got stale, especially during the winter months, and what better way to use those two staples than to create a large gooey pot of leftover cheeses, add some wine and herbs and dip not-so-fresh bread, using long sticks. Add a roaring fire and you’ve got a cozy warm evening and a hot meal.
A common theory credits an unknown Swiss traveler who was visiting China (no, not explorer Marco Polo), and he enjoyed a dish similar to fondue, but rather than hot oil, the Chinese offered broth to dip pieces of different foods. Returning to his native Switzerland, he acquainted a chef with his discovery, and it soon was embraced by the Swiss, substituting cheese. They also used broth, but well, you know the Swiss have to use cheese for just about everything. Enough said.
Eventually fondue was proclaimed a national dish by the Swiss Cheese Union (Schweizerische Käseunion) to increase and promote cheese consumption in the 1930s.Those clever union guys proclaimed it to be part of the “spiritual defense of Switzerland.” (Would I make that up?)
Meanwhile back in France during the middle ages, workers in the vineyards of Burgundy had no access to a meal during their long days picking grapes, so it is rumored that the overseers would set up a hot kettle of oil, enabling workers to cook meats and breads for a hearty lunch. Out of this tradition came the dish Fondue Bourguignonne. Although the French embraced the cheese fondue from their Swiss neighbors, they lead the way with hot oil in which they dipped meats, seafood and vegetables.
In American, it seems fondue was late to the party. (Where was Thomas Jefferson? He would have adored featuring fondue at White House dinners in the early 1800s.) Originally served in French and Swiss restaurants in big cities, it caught on in the late 1960s and 70s as a new trend, and young professionals found it a great way to host a dinner party with very little work or cooking involved. Put out a pot of oil or cheese, a plate of dunking morsels, some wine, and you have a gourmet experience. And leave it to the chocoholics to dream up the chocolate fondue. Take chunks of cake and fruit and dunk away to your heart’s content.
Fondue continues its popularity as a pleasant communal dining experience for all ages. There are still restaurants which specialize in fondue, and others which feature it on their menu. It’s a great dish for entertaining, eating out or just a quiet evening at home. So enjoy its delicious varieties, if for no other reason than it’s nearly impossible to use a cell phone while navigating a hot pot of oil or cheese.