WND – The Molten Cheesescapades

January 29, 2009


It has to be said that of all the places we lived while I was growing up, Switzerland did not my make Top 10, which is too bad because we lived there longer than we lived anywhere else.  Switzerland is an odd country, and by Switzerland I mostly mean Geneva because we tended to leave Switzerland as quickly as possible when we went on vacation and would escape over the border into France or Italy or Austria, kind of like the von Trapp family but in reverse and with less singing.

Living in Switzerland was frequently a faintly surreal experience.  It is a well ordered society in which people obey the rules because they are the rules and what else would one do with them?  And the Swiss have rules about everything, from during what hours you may mow your lawn (8am-8pm and not on Sundays which, okay is actually fairly civilized) to where you may dispose of your excess household trash.  My mother would remove every mailing label or identifying mark from our trash before surreptitiously taking it to a more convenient (but incorrect) dump just in case someone opened up the trash and found our out of jurisdiction address lurking within and report us.  This only seems excessively paranoid if you haven’t lived in Switzerland.

They have rules about how much produce you may bring back across the border, and if you live in Geneva where the border with France is about 10 minutes away and the produce is both cheaper and of a higher quality you have these rules memorized.  When we lived there it was 500 grams of chicken, 300 grams of beef or pork, and 125 grams of butter per person over the age of 16.  What’s more to the point is that if you tried to sneak over the border with more than your allotment and didn’t pay the tariff they would send you back to the store to return your extra 125 grams of butter (or whatever it was) and then they would call the store to make sure you had done it (as opposed to driving out of sight and hiding it under a sweater in your car and then trying to sneak back across the border with your illicit butter).

Despite the fact that I don’t think I’d voluntarily live in Geneva again there were two things about it that I really loved.  I loved flying into Geneva.  You come in over the Alps and the peaks stick up above the cloud layer, and from the plane window it’s like looking down on a fairytale kingdom.  The other thing I loved about Geneva was fondue.  When anyone came through who felt the need to take us out to dinner there were good odds that we’d end up at a fondue restaurant, and several pounds of molten cheese and bread will make anywhere seem appealing.

Fondue is a quintessentially Swiss dish in that it’s relentlessly pragmatic – it’s essentially made of leftovers – and in that there are rules about how to make it.  Rumor has it that one of the key questions on the Swiss naturalization exam is ‘what are the three cheeses used to make fondue’.  I have no idea if this is actually true or not, and my desire to ever find out is fairly close to zero, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it was.  This is Switzerland, a country where the bells on your herd of cows have to all belong to the same chord so that they ring melodiously.  The real question is does the cheese composition of fondue change from canton to canton, or is it the same across Switzerland*?

* The joke about Switzerland being that they’re a confederation because they dislike each other slightly less than they dislike the rest of Europe.  This, I might point out, is a joke told about the Swiss, not by the Swiss who probably don’t find it funny.

Traditional Fondue
Irish Fondue
Things to dip in Fondue
Salad (lots and lots of salad)

Traditional Fondue
As you can tell, I would fail the Swiss naturalization exam because my fondue only has two kinds of cheese in it.  My father says if I keep making fun of the Swiss they won’t let me back.  I’m trying to work up an appropriate level of concern about that.

1 garlic clove, halved crosswise
1 ½ cups dry white wine
1 Tbsp cornstarch
2 tsp kirsch
½ lb Emmental, grated
½ lb Gruyere, grated

Toss the cheese with the cornstarch.

Rub the inside of a heavy pot with the cut sides of the garlic and then discard the garlic.  Add the wine to the pot and bring to a simmer.

Gradually add the cheese to the pot, stirring in a zig zag pattern to prevent cheese from balling up.  Allow each handful to melt and combine with the wine before adding the next handful.  Do not allow to boil.  Add the kirsch, and then cook the fondue for a few minutes until it has thickened.  Transfer to a fondue pot set over a flame.

Notes:  This will look like it is not coming together, and the cheese will look stringy (the stirring in a zig zag is very important here, or it really will clump into a big ball that you can’t rescue), but keep going and keep stirring and all of a sudden it will smooth out and be fondue.

Irish Fondue
If you answer cheddar on the Swiss naturalization exam you will fail, even if you know the date when every canton joined the confederation and can speak all four official languages.

1 lb Cheddar, grated
2 ½ Tbsp flour
¾ cup Guinness (or other dark beer)
2-3 Tbsp apple juice or cider
1 Tbsp mustard

Toss the cheese with the flour.

Bring the Guinness and mustard to a simmer in a large sauce pan and stir to combine.  Gradually add the cheese to the pot, stirring in a zig zag pattern to prevent cheese from balling up.  Allow each handful to melt and combine with the Guinness before adding the next handful.  Do not allow to boil.  Add 2-3 Tbsp apple juice/cider to taste, and season with salt and pepper.  Allow to cook for a few minutes to thicken.  Transfer to a fondue pot set over a flame.

Notes:  I think this needed more liquid than the recipe called for. Next time I would up the Guinness to 1 ¼ cups to start and possibly add more as I went.

Things to Dip in Fondue
Traditionally the only thing you need to eat fondue is some stale bread, and maybe some boiled potatoes if you’re feeling really exotic.  However, in the interests of not just eating 2 lbs of cheese and bread I’ve expanded the selection of things to dip in molten cheese considerably.

Smoked sausage – sliced and sautéed to brown and heat through
Sliced apples
Boiled potatoes
Bread (not particularly stale, but crusty)

We would have had lightly steamed broccoli and cauliflower as well, except a combination of a heavy pan, a hot handle and a weak wrist conspired to have me dump them all over the floor instead.



  1. I have been waiting anxiously to find out what the redeeming features of Switzerland are. And I think you hit the nail on the head here. I do miss fondue; somehow it is not the same anywhere else. But imagination is out of place; dipping apples and broccoli into fondue would probably have you banished for life.

  2. zomg. i can’t believe i missed this much fondue. it would kill me, but it would be worth it. 🙂

  3. You forgot to mention one of the best parts of fondue: the crusty cheese on the bottom of the pot that is scrapped off and eaten.

  4. You would never make it to become Swiss. Obviously the naturalisation test is applied per canton and hence the three cheeses question will vary accordingly.

    I also wonder whether your appreciation of the lake of Geneva was as great when flying out as when coming in?

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