Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Cheese Experiment

Have you ever made cheese fondue? I once watched it all go wrong: Many years ago, a friend tried to make cheese fondue for her New Year Party. She bought several kinds of cheese, rubbed a garlic clove over every inch of the pot's insides, then melted the cheeses and added the necessary amount of white wine and Kirsch plus spices, but . . . for reasons we still don't grasp, in the end, she had a sort of chewy rubber ball big enough to hold with two hands. It was great to defend yourself against thieves or other unwanted intruders but in no way edible. After having watched her embarrassement, I decided to stick to the ready made version for the rest of my life.

You can buy it ready-made in the supermarket here in Germany (only in winter, though), and it's dead easy because you just have to heat it up. At home, we eat it with bread, cut into little pieces, and brussels sprouts. I think the brussels sprouts are a Boeker invention because my husbands likes to experiment with food . . . at least, I've never met anybody else who eats cheese fondue with brussel sprouts. We love it that way.

Well, last week, my day job took me to Switzerland. To my delight, I was informed that we would go out and eat a traditional Swiss cheese fondue. The journey to Switzerland was uneventful . . . the inch of snow didn't deter us, the bomb alarm in the other terminal of our airport delayed us only twenty minutes or so, and we managed without the two people whose flights from Paris and Munich were cancelled because they were snowed in. So we came to this rustic restaurant high above the Zuericher lake and were seated in a so-called "Waschhuesli" which means "little washing house". A historic building, it still had the huge chimney (unused, unfortunately), some iron pipes with tabs, and no electricity. Our group of nine people filled the small house, seated around a large square table. With relief, I noted the four electrical heaters in every corner that were connected with big cords to an outside power source. Candles were lit, and it was wildly romantic, if a bit cold for those who weren't close to the heaters. As I tend to freeze easily, I had chosen a strategic place right next to a heater and was comfy enough.

The usual jokes were made . . . you might have heard that the Swiss used to have a rather drastic attitude about their fondue . . . if you lost a piece of bread in the cheese, you were hit with a stick, if you did it again, whipped, and if it happened a third time, you were drowned in the lake closest at hand with something heavy (cold cheese fondue?) bound to your legs--or so the legend goes. I'm glad to report that things are much more civilized now.

In general, you share one large bowl of cheese on a rechaud. A rechaud is an iron structure with a small fire-light underneath. You also get a thin, extra long fork to dip your piece of bread into the cheese, so I was eyeing the big table with some misgiving because I wondered how I might reach the cheese from my strategic place in the corner. Maybe my strategy had not worked out quite in the right way. Would I have to get up every time I wanted to have another bite? What an awful thought. I had come to eat, not to be sportive.

We got the menus and were told to choose our fondue. I blinked. I had no idea that you could choose a fondue. I mean, it's a fondue, right? What's there to choose? Wrong, Beate, wrong. First, you can make cheese fondue with all different kinds of cheese. Appenzeller cheese, blue mold cheese, mozzarella cheese . . . you name it. Then, you can have different cheese blends, which multiplies the possiblities. Next, you can put all kinds of spices and other ingredients inside. The group fell silent as we looked, dumbfounded, at the choice of fondues on the menu. For minutes, the only sound left in the Waschuesli was the hissing of the electric heaters. I worked my way through the fondues on offer and finally chose one with dried apple pieces inside as I like the combination of fruit with cheese. I was also tempted by the so-called stable fondue with tomatoes. A colleague took that, and her fondue turned out to be rose-colored. The bull fondue had green pepper, cayenne pepper, and mustard, then there was one with mushrooms, one with spicy chillies, one with bacon . . . fifteen different fondues!

We placed our orders. To my relief, everybody got their very owl bowl of fondue, so no hopping up from our seats was required. We also got one little basket with bread each, folded inside a white napkin, and last, the charming waitress placed a little hand-stitched fabric bag with a pretty Edelweiss design next to my seat and said. "The potatoes. Pass them on." I opened the little bag with caution and found hot potatoes inside. Small and round, with their scrubbed skin still intact. I fished out three and passed on the bag as instructed. I've never been given hot potatoes in a bag, and I bet none of the others had. I found it delightful, but, it being a business meeting, we all pretended to be cool and sophisticated about it. That was the moment when I decided I would tell you all about my delightful cheese fondue experience in Switzerland. I have to run now and eat some cheese, but do tell me about your cheese experiences!


Heather said...

oh wonderful, i love fondue! I work in Switzerland for 12 months in a ski resort and regularly ate fondue. i would never attempt it at home though,, would be way to afraid of messing it up.

Shirley Marks said...

I think my hubby and kids might agree - the only way to eat a brussel sprout is if it was encased in cheese.

Jane Myers Perrine said...

Beate--This was so funny! Thank you for sharing. In the 70's, there was a fondue craze in the US with hot oil and cubes of meat. There was also dessert fondue with melted chocolate and cubes of cake and slices of pineapple and apple. I donated my fondue pot to Goodwill years ago. You article brought back memories. I've never attempted to make cheese fondue but have eaten it in restaurants.

Beate Boeker said...

Jane, I remember chocolate fondue from birthday parties when I was a kid. I loved them - and always felt sick afterwards! The hot oil-version with meat is a favorite dish for Germans on New Year Eve, to share with friends. We always use broth instead of oil - that's healthier :-) !
Ha, Shirley, it sounds as if your family doesn't like brussel sprouts? It's funny, isn't it, that brussel sprouts are hated by so many people.
Heather, what an interesting time you must have had in Switzerland! I envy you!

Sandy Cody said...

What a delightful post! I had no idea there were so many variations of fondue. Thanks for sharing.

Elisabeth Rose said...

Oh cripes ! Fondue. We lived in Switzerland for a few months back in the 70's when my husband played drums in a band. We were in Sierre and on the one night off the singer (a Polish lady) suggested we 3 have fondue at a restaurant instead of cooking in our apartment as usual. Her tradition was if you dropped your bread you ordered another bottle of wine. I have never been so drunk before or since and couldn't eat cheese for months afterwards! LOL Good grief what a horrible experinece--the night and morning after I mean. The fondue was actually really nice.

Beate Boeker said...

Oh, Lis, I had to laugh when I read your comment. It sounds dreadful. I've heard they've changed the "punishments" somewhat in the meantime, but at least you didn't have to kiss the host or clean the dishes. That would have been worst, wouldn't it?

Sandy, thank you for leaving a comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the post!