Sunday, November 11, 2018

Heated Cheese and Heated Oil

In the early 1970s fondue was all the rage. A popular wedding gift was a fondue pot and the long forks that go with it. Sometimes the gift included a warmer to go under the pot, usually with a small candle or spirit lamp as the heat source. I knew someone who received four fondue sets as wedding gifts!

So what was the appeal of fondue? I think it was the conviviality of using those long forks to swirl a piece of bread in the melted cheese in the communal pot while others at the table were doing the same. There were no smart phones to distract you. You were all huddled fairly close and conversations flitted around the group, along with a lot of laughter. The tradition was that if your piece of bread fell off the fork into the fondue that there was a forfeit, like kissing the host or hostess or the person next to you...that kind of thing. Made for an interesting evening if you were with newly-weds.

Cheese fondue is a mixture of shredded Emmentaler, a Swiss cheese, and another soft, melty cheese like  Gruyere. There was usually a bit of white wine, garlic rubbed around the pot before starting, and maybe some pepper. It really was a simple dish, based on one that was popular in Switzerland. Although it has been popularized as a peasant dish, in truth the cheese is of the expensive sort, so it is really a party dish. Along with bite sized chunks of crusty bread there were also, sometimes, things like cooked bites of potato, but the main attraction was bread chunks.

Typically, white wine was the drink of choice, but hot tea was also great with cheese fondue.

Fondue was brought to the attention of Americans at the New York Worlds Fair in 1964, but it really had it's heyday in the late 60s and early 70s. It was popular at the time in restaurants, too. When I moved to Berkeley in 1973 there was a restaurant, Fondue Fred's, on Telegraph Ave., up the street from where I lived, that only did fondue. Along with the cheese fondue they also did one where the pot was filled with hot oil and the forks were used to dip pieces of meat and vegetables into the hot oil to cook, then into small dishes of condiments. Fondue Fred's was probably the first restaurant that my daughter ever visited, but she was fast asleep in her infant carrier, so she wouldn't remember it.

At some later date chocolate fondue became popular. Melted chocolate, often flavored with kirche, was presented with cubes of pound cake or angel food cake, and an array of pieces of fruit. Sometimes marshmallows were part of the choices offered.

Making your own fondue is not really that easy because getting a nice, smooth mixture requires a lot of stirring and good, expensive, ingredients. Some cornstarch is usually added to the cheese shreds to prevent the mixture from separating. Some people start with the garlic rubbing around the inside of the pot, then a mixture of white wine and cornstarch, then stir in the shredded cheese, and top the melted mixture with a little kirche. Freshly ground pepper over it all and you are ready to set the pot over a warmer and dip in.

I think I held one fondue party and then realized that I'd rather eat it in a restaurant!

About ten years ago Sweetie and I revisited fondue because his good friend his wife from Australia and Jon's sister invited us to join them in Marin at a fondue restaurant, The Melting Pot in Larkspur, where we had a most memorable meal. We had three kinds of fondue; cheese, hot broth, and chocolate, if I remember correctly, plus copious wine, in a very swank and atmospheric place. Of course the laughter and conversations that seem to go easily with the fondue experience were copious, too.


  1. When I was in the fifth grade, we were invited to a New Year party where there was a chocolate and a cheese fondue pot. It was a hoot - I'd never seen one, and thought it was The Greatest Invention Ever, obviously. I've only ever had fondue once since - there's a crepe cafe near UC Davis that has fondue. It's full-bodied, wine-heavy and authentic, whereas I'm pretty sure our hostess in the 80's had Velveeta in the pot. ☺

  2. I suspect that the 80s one was indeed Velveeta. I does melt well, but tastes nothing like the real deal. Glad you had a good one near UC Davis. Now that cheese is off the table for me I can only enjoy the memories.