This year, I set off for a family vacation at the beach with all the usual baggage plus a cooler filled with bags of fresh herbs from the garden, pounds of dark and milk chocolate, chunks of imported cheeses, bottles of assorted liqueurs and wines, a fondue pot, and a few cans of Sterno. Little did they know, but my extended family was in for a treat–testing fondue recipes–and we had lots of fun in both the making and the eating.
The word “fondue” comes from fondre, the French word for “melted” or ”blended.” For fondue au fromage, bread cubes are dipped into a mixture of melted Gruyère and/or Emmentaler cheese, wine, kirsch, and flavorings. For fondue bourguignonne, cubes of beef or other meat are cooked in a pot of hot oil. Fruit and squares of cake are dipped into fondue au chocolat, a combination of melted chocolate, cream, and a bit of liqueur. All fondues are served in an earthenware caquelon or other chafing dish, and diners wielding long-handled forks gather round and dip morsels of food into the pot.
According to legend, fondue originated centuries ago in the cheese-making region of Switzerland, where in winter fresh food was hard to come by. One cold day, a peasant, wondering what to fix for dinner, threw some dry cheese and white wine into a pot, heated them, dipped some pieces of stale bread into the mixture, and dubbed it “fondue.” Traditional cheese fondue contains a touch of kirsch, a clear cherry brandy, and occasionally the pan is rubbed with garlic.
Beef fondue is said to have originated in France in the Middle Ages, when food spoiled easily and refrigeration was possible only in winter. Harvesters working long hours would set up pots of hot oil and cook, then eat, their meals right in the vineyards. The origins of chocolate fondue are unclear, but one can surmise that if the Swiss found melted cheese delicious, they soon discovered a similar application for their famous chocolate.
During the 1960s and 1970s, fondue parties and restaurants enjoyed a vogue in some parts of the United States. (I unearthed my mother’s twenty-five-plus-year-old avocado green fondue pot to test these recipes.) I recall attending fondue parties where fairly bland cheese fondue and white bread cubes for dunking were served. Chocolate fondue, made by melting chocolate chips with cream, also was popular during this era; we kids were in dessert heaven as we dunked marshmallows, pound cake, bananas, maraschino cherries, and canned mandarin orange slices into the warm mixture.
Today, my view of fondue has changed, and, it seems, so has the rest of the world’s. A recent search at my local library turned up no listings under “fondue,” but an Internet search yielded 180 sites: mostly recipes, restaurant ads, and fondue pots of every kind from nonstick electric to state-of-the-art stainless steel.
Although I still love the idea of fondue, my tastes have changed, and I no longer yearn to dunk maraschino cherries or marshmallows in chocolate. Seeking to develop some tasty recipes heightened by the addition of herbs, I chose cheese and chocolate fondues because both blend well with many types of herbs; you’ll find your own favorite flavor combinations.