Comté 500 grams
Chardonnay 1 glass
Garlic 1 clove
Nutmeg a pinch
Pepper a dash
Crusty Bread (Baguette, Ciabatta, Country Loaf…)
Salad & Cold Cuts
Growing up in Eastern France, the winters of my childhood were always filled with marvelous melty cheese dishes: raclette, gratin dauphinois, tartiflette… and, of course, fondue! Several of the dishes are cooked communally at the table, which makes them great fun. I remember, my grandparents would take my cousins and me skiing in the sub-alpine Jura Mountains. After an exhilarating day on the blustery cold slopes we would gather together around a warm raclette grill or fondue pot and warm our hands and faces while laughing and eating.
A couple of restaurants in my region are particularly famous for fondue. Both of them remind us how close we are to Switzerland with their chalet-style and rustic hand-hewn wood tables and chairs. My favorite is so humble that it is simply called “the cheese restaurant” (“Restaurant du Fromage”). However, these days, I’m always home in the summer so I prefer to take guests to La Finette in Arbois because it is air conditioned. The restaurant opened in the early 1960s and has remained typical of that era. I find it marvelous to be plunged into that unpretentious retro atmosphere of the France my parents and grandparents knew: when my region was less cosmopolitan. The restaurant serves fondue in heavy enameled cast iron pots accompanied by big loafs of dark-crusted peasant bread and glasses of my favorite local wine, a nutty white savagnin made right there in Arbois… and there is nothing like that first mouthful of rich, smooth melted cheese.
I simply can’t wait an entire year to eat fondue and since I can buy big quantities of my region’s Comté cheese inexpensively at Costco in the States, I make it for my family every winter (the real fondue season). Even in the Austin area we always have a few days when the mercury hovers near freezing and I seize the opportunity to make fondue. Like many of the simplest recipes in France, this one is hotly debated. It seems like everyone has an opinion about how it should be done. Some people insist the bread must be stale –I strongly disagree and prefer it fresh, while my wife wants it toasted!
The best fondue-maker in my family is cousin Thierry. He has lots of little tricks that make his fondue special. For example, in addition to a base of Comte cheese, he always tosses in the little bits of various leftover hard cheeses that have been collecting in his cheese box. (In France a constant tenant in most refrigerators is a Tupperware box containing a variety of cheeses --some of which would stink up the rest of the fridge if not for the box.) My cousin also insists that to make a good fondue you must add a scant teaspoon of cornstarch to keep the fat from separating from the liquids. For years, I replaced the cornstarch with potato starch because, living in the States, I’m keen to avoid genetically modified foods. But, I had to stop altogether because a fight broke out in my kitchen every time my hand hovered over the pot poised to add the powder. Lisa likes the fondue separated so she can soak up the liquid with her bread before covering it in cheese… she says it is heavenly when you sink your teeth into the bread and the juicy liquid baths your tongue in the wine infused flavor. As you can imagine, my resistance didn’t last for many years: when a Frenchman has to choose between potato starch and his love’s happiness… the starch loses.
Cut the bread in bite-size pieces: making sure each piece has a bit of crust. Put them in a bowl to bring to the table (Toast a bit if desired).
Cut the garlic clove in half and rub the oil all over the inside of the fondue pot, then crush the clove and add it all to the pot. Cut the cheese up in one inch squares and put them in the pot. (I am a purist and only use Comté. Some people add gruyere or make it cheaper by using some Emmental. When you buy your cheese, you will notice that Comté is not always the same color. Comté that is made with summer milk is a bit more yellow because of the fresh grass and flowers the cows eat and I prefer it. The Comté can be aged from 12-24 months so summer milk cheese is readily available in the winter. Also, look for cracked cheese… fissures are an imperfection: so, often at Costco you can buy older more flavorful cracked cheese for the same price as the less mature stuff. If there aren’t any pieces with cracks, try to get one with a thick grey rind.) Add a glass of white wine, preferably a Chardonnay aged in a steel tank that doesn’t suffer from too much malolactic fermentation –in other words, if the label says “buttery” or “creamy” don’t buy it. You want a Chardonnay that is a bit crisp to refresh your palette from the richness of the fondue. Grate in a very small dash of nutmeg. Grind in a bit of fresh pepper.
Melt the cheese on high heat stirring frequently to meld the liquids and fats as much as possible (without using starch) then reduce the heat so the cheese stays thin and melted without boiling.
If you don’t have a fondue pot you can make this in a pot over the stove but you will have to return it to the heat frequently to keep the consistency pleasant.
Serve with salad and cold cuts such as prosciutto, dry salami, smoked ham, etc…
Prick the bread through the crust first. It will stay on the fork better and avoid scraping your pot too. (Some people like to make fondue night a bit more festive by forcing those whose bread falls off into the pot to sing a song.) Dip the bread in the liquid surface then swirl it in the cheese to coat fully. Everyone should eat directly from the pot immediately after coating the bread.
My favorite part: When the pot is almost empty, turn the heat on high to get a bit of fat to separate from the cheese while stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon. Add two eggs and scramble them in the cheese, reduce the heat and continue to eat as before.