Words Jane Zatylny x Photography Don Denton
I first experienced the communal cooking ritual known as fondue some 20 years ago. Six of us gathered around an avocado-coloured pot, a hand-me-down from the host’s parents. We pierced cubes of raw meat with our fondue forks and then lowered them into bubbling hot oil.
I remember the sizzle of the oil as it met the meat, the fragrant cloud of steam that rose from the pot and how the experience warmed my senses on that cold winter’s night. We chatted and turned our forks with anticipation until our morsels of meat were ready to eat, then dabbed the meat into special sauces prepared by our host. Intrigued, I would go on to discover cheese fondue, hot broth fondue and, eventually, chocolate fondue.
Although most of us think of fondue as a retro North American cuisine, it actually has its roots in Europe. The word itself is a derivative of the French verb “fondre,” which means “to melt.” The Swiss staked their claim to the gooey goodness that is cheese fondue, naming it their national dish in 1930. As the story goes, fondue was invented in a French-speaking region of Switzerland in the 18th century as a way to use up stale bread and aged cheese during the winter months, when fresh food was scarce.
Oil fondues trace their beginnings to French vineyards. Workers who couldn’t break for their meals fried small pieces of meat in a communal pot of oil while working in the fields. A Swiss restaurateur, Konrad “Konni” Egli, is credited for popularizing the oil fondue, or fondue bourguignonne, in the 1960s in his Manhattan restaurant, Chalet Suisse. Egli is also said to be responsible for creating the chocolate fondue.
Though fondue is trendy now, it has gone in and out of fashion over the decades. But it really does have an enduring appeal, particularly at this time of year.
“It amazes me that it stays so popular, but I think it’s a lot like Monopoly,” says Jed Grieve, owner of Cook Culture stores in Victoria and Vancouver. “It’s a fun and familiar thing that generations can actively do together at the holidays. We sell very few sets from January to November, but we can’t keep them in stock in December.”
Follow these simple steps when serving fondue at home for better results as well as safety.
Choose a sturdy enamelled cast iron pot (Staub and Le Creuset are both excellent options) for even heat distribution and safer handling. A large variety of cheese fondue recipes can be found via a quick Google, or turn to a trusted cookbook for a recipe that suits your preferences.
Most recipes call for a mixture of about 600 grams each of hard and semi-hard cheeses, up to two cups of beer or dry white wine, two tablespoons of traditional kirsch and a teaspoon of flour or cornstarch.
Begin by rubbing the inside of your pot with a cut clove of garlic. Mix the grated cheeses and warm the wine or beer on your stove-top over low heat. Heat the kirsch separately and stir in the flour or cornstarch. Gradually add the cheese mixture to the wine or beer. Stir constantly until the cheese melts. Add the kirsch/starch mixture and more warm liquid if mixture becomes too thick. Do not boil. Light the fuel (most fondue sets use Sterno or a gel fondue fuel; follow manufacturers’ instructions), and shift pot to its stand using oven mitts.
Cheese combinations to try:
• The classic Swiss blend: Emmentaler and Gruyère
• Dubliner and havarti
• Stilton and aged Canadian cheddar
• Fontina and brie
The sky’s the limit, but always avoid raw meats and seafood with cheese fondues.
• Day-old baguette, pumpernickel or rye bread
• Granny Smith apple chunks, seedless grapes and pear slices
• Par-boiled potato cubes
• Vegetables like broccoli, mushrooms, cauliflower and zucchini
• French gherkins and pickled onions
• Cooked meats, such as sliced chorizo or chunks of grilled beef tenderloin
Good to know:
• Don’t discard the delicious crust of cheese on the bottom of the pot. It can be easily pried out of the pot with a fondue fork and is worth fighting over with your dinner companions.
Hot oil fondue
Stainless steel pots transfer the heat from oils evenly, but be sure to choose a good-quality model for safety’s sake.
Fill your pot no more than one-third full with your chosen oil (peanut and vegetable oils work well). Carefully heat over low to medium until a cube of bread dropped into the oil turns golden brown in 30 seconds; do not let the oil smoke. (The correct temperature should be about 190 C or 375 F.) Move the pot to the fondue stand in the middle of a large table; maintain the heat to safely cook raw meat and seafood. (A thinly sliced piece of meat should cook to rare in 30 seconds, medium in 45 seconds and well done in 60 seconds.)
Sauces to try:
• Serve beef filet slices with a classic Béarnaise or Hollandaise sauce
• Top chicken pieces with a dollop of pesto and sundried tomato slices
• Dip pork chunks into a spicy Thai peanut sauce
• Partner chunks of vegetables with Dijon or sriracha mayonnaise
Good to know:
• Thinly sliver beef, chicken or seafood for faster cooking times
• Separate raw meats from vegetables and refrigerate prior to serving
• Discourage double dippers by setting the table with extra fondue forks, spoons, knives and forks and side plates
• For a lighter option, try a chicken, beef or vegetable broth instead of an oil
Small ceramic pots work best for chocolate fondues; they ensure that their sweet, rich contents remain at a low simmer. Make a ganache on your stovetop by mixing chocolate and hot cream together in a bowl over a saucepan filled with water.
You can vary the proportions and types of chocolate and cream. Add flavourings such as vanilla, nuts, fruits and liqueurs to taste. Transfer the mixture to your fondue pot and place over a low heat, typically a candle, to avoid burning the chocolate.
Flavourings to try:
• Grand Marnier
• Sea salt
• Candy cane
• Chunks of firm fruit, such as pineapple, strawberries, pitted cherries, dried apricots and mandarin orange sections
• Bread, fruit cake or biscotti pieces
• Marshmallows, angel food cake pieces, pretzels and potato chips
• Whipped cream
• Slivered almonds
• Chocolate shavings
• Ground nuts
A huge thank you to Roshan Vickery for hosting our fondue party.