Swiss seek to settle debate over the true fondue

Oct. 6, 2009 at 5:06 a.m.
Updated Oct. 7, 2009 at 5:07 a.m.

GENEVA (AP) — It's dinnertime and farmers are dipping bread cubes into a molten pot of melted cheese, an image of Switzerland's rustic mountainsides and garrets as iconic as Heidi at her chalet or men in embroidered vests playing 10-foot-long (3.05-meter-long) Alphorns.

The classic fondue is still a mainstay of the Swiss diet, and good fondues can be ordered in restaurants around the country. But recipes vary greatly across regions. A new, national cookbook published with the help of Switzerland's government tourism agency aims to settle the debate with the authentic recipe of cheeses and alcohols.

It says that only Vacherin and Gruyere cheeses mixed with Fendant wine and a dash of kirsch (cherry) schnapps make for the true fondue. The book also offers dozens of other recipes for relatively simple but delicious Swiss dishes.

"The question as to the right cheese mix for a fondue divides the country," according to "The Swiss Cookbook."

But the book claims its recipe is the undeniable classic, and Swiss restaurateurs seem to agree.

"That's what people like most," said Manuela Rossberg, of the Fondue House in Lucerne.

Switzerland was until modern times a poorer, peasant society, with a diet that lacked the sophistication of French cuisine or the fresh produce available in southern Europe. But the scarcity led to a variety of dishes making use of what the country has always been rich in: beef and dairy.

The cookbook tells you how to make over 140 national dishes, and those like the melted creamy cheese "raclette" or the mythical pancake-like potato "roesti" have changed little over the centuries. Also offered are desserts of rich Swiss chocolate and step-by-step instructions to prepare tennis star Roger Federer's favorite meal: Zurich-style ragout.

The book can be ordered from the Switzerland tourism Web site and was published by Betty Bossi, a Swiss publisher named for a fictional cook created in the mid-1950s, modeled on the U.S. Betty Crocker brand. The tourism Web site,, says the cookbook is "for natives, for everyone living in Switzerland, for fans and friends of Switzerland, for homesick Swiss expats and for foodies, epicures and gourmets."

The book divides Switzerland into four food regions distinguished by their different homegrown vegetables and fish, meat and other specialties.

Cheese fondue, eaten throughout the country, is flagged in the section of the book about the Fribourg canton or state, where French- and German-speaking farmers alike produce the famous hard cheeses Gruyere and Vacherin.

These two cheeses must be mixed equally, and blended with some light Fendant white wine, Kirsch schnapps and small amounts of cornstarch, garlic, nutmeg and pepper. More of the schnapps, which has a significantly higher percentage of alcohol than the American liqueur of the same name, is often consumed with the meal.

For the Swiss, a fondue dinner is more than a simple dish. Friends and family often gather for hours to slowly stir their bread on long forks in the cauldron of cheese known as a caquelon, which is heated by a small flame. Hardcore fondue fans especially cherish the hard, burnt cheese that collects on the bottom, which is known by French speakers as "la religeuse" ("the nun") and is sometimes scraped out at the end of the meal as a coup de grace.

The recipe book, however, offers a stirring technique to minimize the burning. "Make sure that the bread touches the bottom of the dish, to prevent the fondue burning and becoming bitter," it advises.

However primitive the concept, sharing fondue requires an element of civility. Diners need to stir regularly to prevent excessive burning at the bottom of the pot, and must also contend with fork traffic as each seeks to coat another piece of bread with cheese. Losing your bread in the liquid is a big no-no, and can bring friendly penalties from the others at the table.

A common mistake fondue neophytes make is to drink water, as the salty cheeses make them thirsty. This can create a heavy feeling. Beyond schnapps, the Swiss often drink white wine while they eat fondue, usually the same Fendant in the recipe or the closely related chasselas preferred in the Lausanne and Geneva areas. Hot tea is another option, as it helps with digestion.

For the anti-cheese crowd, the book also offers a number of meat, fishand vegetarian dishes that are surprisingly easy to prepare.

One Swiss classic is roesti, which is similar to a giant hash brown but rougher and thicker. Using the right potatoes is crucial: the floury ones will fail to hold. To cook with the same organization as the Swiss, remember to boil the potatoes a day before so they can be easily grated.

Onions, bacon and different kinds of cheese are mixed with the potatoes, and different regions produce a variety of versions. In the east, near the Austrian border, roesti is served with veal sausages and onion sauce, while elsewhere it may come with a fried egg on top.

Once a breakfast, like American hash browns, roesti is in Switzerland a midday or dinner meal.

As for the sweet-toothed, fear not: the book is full of desserts.

The recipe for mousse from Toblerone chocolate — famous for its triangular, mountain-like shape that mimics the Matterhorn — produces a delicious dessert. The dark chocolate mousse has a strong cacao flavor, while the white version is sweeter. The preparation is the same, and in each the tiny nougat flakes are particularly tasty.



Unless you have access to a cheese shop, you may have trouble finding Vacherin Fribourgeois cheese. Consider substituting fontina or another good melting cheese.

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Servings: 4

14 ounces Vacherin Fribourgeois cheese, grated

14 ounces mature Gruyere cheese, grated

1 1/4 cups dry white wine

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 garlic clove, minced

2 to 3 tablespoons kirsch (cherry liqueur)

Pinch of nutmeg

Ground black pepper, to taste

1 large baguette or other crusty white loaf (about 11 ounces), cut into cubes

In a large fondue pot, combine both cheeses, then heat according to manufacturer's directions.

In small glass, whisk together the wine and cornstarch. Once the cheese has melted, stir the wine mixture into the cheese. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Add the garlic, kirsch, nutmeg and pepper.

Set the pot's heat source to low to maintain a gentle simmer. Serve with bread cubes.

(Recipe adapted from "The Swiss Cookbook," published in English by Betty Bossi, available from the Switzerland Tourism Web site at for US$51, about 53 Swiss francs including postage).



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