The Swiss may make great chocolates, but there’s Belgium, just around the corner, vying for a rich and creamy first position. The Swiss may have mastered the art of cheese-making, but there’s France on their western border where Swiss Emmental, Gruyère, Vacherin, and Appenzeller are always in battle for first position with French Roquefort, Camembert, Brie de Meaux, and Munster right across the Alps. Of course, the Swiss have a larder full of pork sausages, smoked ham, salami, Bündnerfleisch, Jambon de la borne, bockwurst, but there’s Germany on their east and Italy just below whose preeminence in fine and celebrated charcuterie is unrivalled.
So, then the Swiss do what they do best. Remain neutral and keep everyone happy, drawing influences from the Germans, French and North Italians. I have been to Switzerland a couple of times. More than the food, what surprised me was a cardboard cutout of Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol on top of Mt. Titlis and realising that Hindi and Gujarati are the most widely spoken languages in Interlaken. I also tend to get quickly bored by the Swiss landscape, because Yash Chopra made it seem so commonplace, that it’s like “been there done that”, even before I had actually been there and done that. And much like the landscape, I find the cuisine which is beautiful, but basically different versions of Muesli, Rösti, Fondue, and raclette a bit humdrum. Yet out of this archetypical fare, the one dish that resonated with some parts of India, as well as me, is the Fondue.
We cooked Fondue at home quite often when we were young. We also had these brass pots with wooden handles, which sat atop a tea light or lit chafing fuel. We had also acquired these long fondue forks which were so long that we would mock fence with them. My grandmother would melt a whole tin of Amul cheese and mix it with some flour and mustard, and black pepper, some cheap Bosca wine and make small bits of crusty bread for us to dip into the melting pot. Today, I know that that isn’t the exact recipe of a Cheese Fondue.
They say the Cheese Fondue originated as farmer food in the Swiss Alps. It was an inexpensive way to feed the family and not waste stale bread. Originally it was just bread dipped in melted Gruyère. By the 1930s, it had become food for all. A decadent way of spending your chilly winter evenings together. Undoubtedly, the recipe became posher too.
So, the pot now could have melted Gruyère along with other Swiss cheeses like Emmentaler, Vacherin Fribougeois, Appenzeller, for example, embellished with splurges and bursts of kirsch and wine, flavoured with garlic and a few chopped herbs, maybe the sharpness of mustard, and spices. Now, instead of just bits of bread for dipping into the cheesy sauce, that too became luxe. Stale bread was replaced with a variety of good cubed bread, roasted or fried potatoes, sliced apples or pears, pickled cucumber or pickled pearl onions, sausages and salami to just name a few luxurious dipping foods. I still like chunks of crusty bread to dip into a fine Cheese Fondue that’s boiling over. Especially the religieuse at the bottom of the cheese pot. Not to be confused with the religieuse in France, which is a French pastry made choux pastry filled with crème pâtissier, the Fondue religieuse is the crust of cheese that forms at the bottom of a fondue pot, when wiped and scraped with bread or a sausage is the most delicious part of the fondue.
There is also the Fondue Bourguignonne, which uses no cheese but boiling oil. Swiss field workers who couldn’t go back home for a meal, started bringing pots of oil to the field which they would keep on the boil during the day and dip pieces of meat into, to make lunch. Since the meat hailed from Burgundy in France, it landed up being called Fondue Bourguignonne. It’s quite stylish to do that today, with all kinds of meats or seafood, all served with a variety of dipping sauces.
Even the Chinese have their version of the fondue. The Chinese Hot-Pot is nothing but a Fondue of sorts. Patronisingly called Fondue Chinoise, meat and vegetables are cooked in a pot of broth. When the pot comes to a boil, thinly sliced meat is dipped into the broth with a fondue fork till slightly cooked and then eaten with salad as side dish. Once done with the dipping, the broth, which by now has the wonderful flavours of different meats, is mixed with thin noodles and finished off.
It didn’t take time for us in India to embrace the fondue and make it out own. When the legendary Tarla Dalal wrote her bestselling cookbook, “The Pleasures of Vegetarian Cooking” her fondue recipe had all the Gujarati vegetarians furiously boiling cheese over a fire. Her recipe was simple, grate processed cheese add butter, crushed garlic, maida, milk and white wine, and boil. She even called it Indian Style Cheese Fondue. Tarla, who I knew quite well, also improvised another ingenious idea and invented “The Creamy Pav Bhaji Fondue”. Basically, you make pav-bhaji like you would usually make it; flavoured this with chilli garlic paste and then enrich it with cream and milk. As this mixture boils, you dip pieces of toasted herb bread. It actually tastes quite good.
To end this fondue story on a sweet note, although invented, I believe, by the Americans, most buffet parties in India boast of a chocolate fountain. What is that if not a fondue? Melted chocolate ready to be dipped into with pieces of marshmallow or cakes. Such is the love for fondue that someone once said, “I wish that I die by drowning in fondue”.
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