what is fondue

If you’re a cheese lover, then you’ve certainly at least heard of fondue. Maybe you’ve even attempted to make it yourself, the melty, gooey goodness, the ideal snack for a group of family and friends on a cold winter night (better yet, if there’s a snowstorm howling outside the windows). 

Or you might’ve googled what it is after watching Captain America: The First Avenger sometime in the last decade. I cannot claim it to be a fact, but if someone asked me whether that movie boosted the interest in this simple but decadent dish, I’d bet on a yes, rather than no.

But if you’ve yet to learn what it is or would like to expand your knowledge about it, then this article’s for you. Below, we’ll be answering the questions of what is fondue, where it comes from, how many types there are, and how to make it at home. 

What is Fondue?

The answer to the what is fondue question is a bit more complicated than one would think, as, over the years, the term has been used for more than one dish, similar in styles but not ingredients.

But for the longest time, the word fondue was used to refer to one specific dish: melted cheese (sometimes mixed with corn starch or flour) flavored with garlic, and white wine or brandy, served in a communal pot over the heater

According to certain historical accounts, a similar dish can be traced back to Ancient Greece, made by mixing sheep or goat cheese with wine and flour. However, the original proto-fondue seems to have been made with fresh soft cheese, with flour used as a thickener, while modern fondue is usually made with hard, Alpine-style cheese.

Tracking down the exact origins of modern fondue is complicated, not in the least because a different dish was referred to by the name for a time.

  • The first recipe for a dish we’d call cheese fondue (hard cheese melted with wine, used for dipping bread) popped up at the very end of the 17th century;
  • The name cheese fondue was used for a dish made with eggs and cheese, something akin to airy, fluffy scrambled eggs; 
  • A simpler version of the dish originated among the peasants of the Swiss Alpine region in the early 1800s and was primarily an attempt to make the most of hardened cheese and stale bread.

In reality, modern cheese fondue is only tangentially related to all of them, and only because they can all essentially be boiled down to “dip bread in melted cheese.” 

The actual modern style of cheese fondue was created in lowland Switzerland in the second half of the 19th century. While it may have found inspiration in the peasant version, it was a dish for wealthy town-dwellers: Gruyere cheese, especially in the amount required for fondue, wasn’t an affordable pleasure.

In an attempt to increase cheese consumption, the Swiss Cheese Union started promoting fondue as the national dish of Switzerland in the 1930s, a successful endeavor by all means that has cemented its place as the most recognizable Swiss food in the world century later.

Different Styles of Cheese Fondue

While the Alps are the home of cheese fondue, the Alpine region covers eight countries, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are certain differences in how they prefer cooking their fondue, first determined by which ingredients were readily available and then tradition cementing itself.

Swiss-Style Fondue

There are over half a dozen regional varieties of Swiss-style fondue (though some only use names without reflecting the correct traditions), but the basic details are the same: Gruyere cheese, often mixed with other types of Swiss cheese like Emmental, Sbrinz, Appenzeller or Fribourg vacherin, is melted in a caquelon until fully melted, often together with a bit of cornstarch or flour so that the cheese emulsifies better and has a smoother texture without any clumps. Swiss-style fondue is traditionally flavored with garlic, white wine, and kirsch (Swiss cherry brandy), but other seasonings like herbs, peppers, chilis, and, more rarely, mushrooms and crushed tomato are also common.

Notable regional varieties include:

Fondue Vaudoise, the one made with exclusively Gruyere cheese.

Fondue Neuchâteloise, made with Gruyère and Emmental.

Fondue Innerschweiz, which is made by mixing Gruyere cheese with Emmental and Sbrinz.

Fondue Fribourgeoise, which is the only variety that doesn’t use Gruyere cheese or wine, instead being made by melting Fribourg vacherin in a few tablespoons of water on low heat.

Fondue Appenzellerland, the only other variety that doesn’t use Gruyere cheese, swapping it for Appenzeller cheese.

French-Style Fondue

The technique of fondue preparation stays the same, but the Swiss cheese is swapped for local varieties, and specific regions have specific preferences. For example: 

Fondue Jurassienne is made with Comté cheese only, but the Comté can be both hard and mature or mild.

Fondue Auvergnate uses three types of cheese, all locally popular varieties: hard cheese Cantal, soft Saint-Nectaire, and blue Fourme d’Ambert.

Fondue Savoyarde is the most common, with the least rigid recipe. It uses Comté as the primary basis, similar to Swiss-style fondues using Gruyere cheese. But like Fondue Innerschweiz, it’s made by mixing three or four different cheese varieties. Beaufort cheese is almost always present, but the maker is free to add other local cheese varieties as they see fit. Reblochon is a prevalent option, with Abondance cheese and French Gruyere not far behind.

Italian-Style Fondue

The peculiar thing about Italian-style fondue is that it has more in common with the first dish, named cheese fondue than the current one, as it, too, is made with eggs. 

Italian-style fondue is called Fonduta alla Valdostana (Fondue a la Valdotaine in French) or Fonduta alla Piemontese, depending on the region, but there don’t seem to be a lot of differences between the two. Both fondue varieties use Fontina cheese as the main ingredient, combining it with milk, a bit of flour for emulsification, and egg yolks. 

Italian-style fondue has a sweeter and milder flavor due to Fontina cheese but also a much richer and creamier texture due to the use of milk and egg yolks. Unlike Swiss and French fondue, it’s often served as a sauce for polenta, pasta, and risotto, not just a dip.

How to Make Cheese Fondue:

Fondue is traditionally made in a caquelon, a deep pot made with stoneware, ceramic, or cast iron. That said, most heavy metal pots with high heat resistance (ex., hard-anodized aluminum) are considered acceptable, not to mention electric fondue pots explicitly designed for the task.

At its core, cheese fondue is a simple dish, and it can be made by just dumping all the ingredients together into the pot and then patiently stirring until there’s only a homogenous, smooth mass on the hand.

But there’s also a “proper way” of doing things, adding ingredients in a specific order, and it’s considered to render a more flavorful, better-seasoned dish.

First, the pot is rubbed with a garlic clove all over. Then white wine is added with cornstarch or flour to create the base for the cheese. Once the cornstarch (or flour) starts disintegrating in the liquid, grated cheese is added while constantly stirring the pot. At the very end, once the cheese is melted and fondue is almost ready, additional seasonings and some kirsch are often added as well for extra flavor.

With the popularity of cheese fondue rising worldwide, pre-made fondue mixes started hitting the market. These blends are already seasoned and only need to be melted following the instructions on the packaging. There are even individual portion sizes and "instant fondue blends" that can be prepared in a microwave.

What to Serve with Cheese Fondue:

Fondue is traditionally served with chunks of bread to be dipped in the cheese with long-stemmed forks. All types of bread are good, from white to wholegrain to sourdough, depending on your preferences. Crackers are also an acceptable option, though not so common (due to being less suitable for forking and requiring dipping by hand).

Other than that, frankly, any ingredient that goes with cheese can be used for dipping: fruit and vegetable slices (potatoes are a particular favorite), small meatballs, sliced cured meat, etc.

Other Types of Fondue:

While fondue, the term, generally refers to cheese fondue if otherwise unspecified, there are several other dishes that the term also covers, especially in Switzerland (or Swiss restaurants in other countries).

The trend of extending the name to other dishes started around the 1950s and is attributed mainly to New York-based Swiss restaurateur Konrad Egli.

Judging by the existing examples, the main characteristic that tends to group a dish into fondue classification is the manner in which it’s served: if it’s shared in a communal vessel and revolves around dipping various ingredients into the pot immediately before consumption, then the dish can likely be classified as a fondue, even if it’s not exactly a traditional Swiss food.

Broth Fondue

Broth fondue is also called Fondue Chinoise, i.e., Chinese fondue. It’s hard to say whether the name started circulating once Asian cuisine became more accessible in Europe or if Konrad Engli expanding the use of the term inspired others to refer to all dishes served in a similar manner as fondue, but hot broth served in a large pot and kept hot for dipping savory ingredients like meat and vegetable slices transformed into a form of fondue. Technically, this means that Chinese hot pot, Japanese Shabu-Shabu, or Thailand’s Thai Suki are all a form of fondue.

In Switzerland, broth fondue is a popular Christmas dish, with broth-boiled meat and vegetables often paired with various sauces and pickles.

Oil Fondue

Oil fondue or Fondue Bourguignonne is the earliest non-cheese type of fondue, the origins of which we can track down. It was created by Konrad Egli in 1956 and served in his New York-based restaurant Chalet Suisse. Fondue Bourguignonne served hot oil for dipping instead of cheese or broth with various savory dipping sauces on the side. 

There are certain similarities to other Asian dishes: Korean BBQ and Japanese Yakiniku, though not as apparent as Fondue Chinoise and Chinese Hot Pot. KBBQ and Yakiniku involve cooking ingredients right at the table but over a grill instead of deep-frying. So whether Egli was inspired by Chinese hot pot, Asian-style BBQ, or the already existing broth fondue (if it was referred to as broth fondue at this point) is uncertain.

Wine Fondue

Wine fondue or Fondue Vigneronne (sometimes called Fondue Bacchus) is another version heavily influenced by broth fondue; only it uses wine to make the dipping sauce. It’s the most heavily spiced one among all the savory varieties, with salt, black or white pepper, chili, garlic, onion, coriander, cinnamon, and various other herbs used in different combinations to flavor the sauce. White wine-based fondue is often additionally thickened with chicken broth. 

Meat and vegetables cooked in wine fondue are often served with mustard or bearnaise sauce.

Chocolate Fondue

Chocolate fondue is another invention of Konrad Egli, and it was, of all things, an ad campaign. Egli was approached by Toblerone chocolate to help raise awareness about the product before the launch in the US. His earlier successful fondue reinvention evidently served as an inspiration. In 1966, Chale Suisse introduced Chocolate Fondue, made with melted Toblerone mixed with heavy cream and kirschwasser. It’s typically served with fresh fruit and small pastries for dipping.

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