While it’s eaten year round on the French side of Switzerland, the rest of the country reserves the melted cheese dish for the cold winter months. Adam H. Graham takes readers on a tour of his favourite fondue spots.
Before snow arrives, nabelmeer (fog seas) fill the valleys and Switzerland enters my favourite season of all: high fondue season. The nation’s trademark dish of melted cheese, wine, kirsch (cherry-distilled brandy) and corn-starch binds the country’s four linguistic regions together in a way few other things do here.
Here, it’s often served after a day on the piste or a long hike as a reward for your hard work. Fondue is not just eaten here, it’s earned.
It would be difficult to rank Switzerland’s best fondue places as there are so many and I haven’t been here long enough to sample them all. But over the last five years, I’ve been lucky enough to dip my bread or potatoes (or apples if you’re fondue-ing at a real renegade establishment) into a variety of bubbling cheese-filled caquelons (the traditional ceramic glazed iron pot the molten cheese is served in). But the first thing I learned about it, is that Swiss fondue is thickly laden with traditional rules, often ones that make no sense.
It’s not uncommon to start a fondue dinner with a salad or a small plate of dried meats. But Swiss tradition dictates—staunchly—that fondue be served with nothing else beyond that. Fondue is the star. A diva who works alone. For a drink, one must order a Fendant, a stony Swiss white wine, and/or black tea, but nothing else, not even ice-water. In truth, I prefer to pair my fondue with red wine as it helps digest and flush out the sodium, but it causes my Swiss-German friends so much irritation to break the rules, that I no longer bother. Don’t even think about asking for a soda, juice, beer, or cocktail. Most Swiss believe these drinks make it difficult to digest the fondue, which in some cases might have some truth, but for the most part, these and other fondue rules are 100% poppycock.
Canton Fribourg is generally credited for the invention of cheese fondue, a fact frequently mentioned by food historians who cite a 17th-century Swiss German cookbook in which it first appears in print. But recipes of melted cheese and wine date back to Homer’s Iliad circa 800 A.D., making the gooey dish almost as old as cheese itself. What is known is that the word fondre is French for “to melt.” Many historians believe that Fribourg’s Gruyère-producing and exporting farmers ate fondue as a way to use up stale bread and hardening cheeses during winter months when fresh vegetables were scarce in the Alps.
Today, Canton Fribourg remains home to some of my favourite fondue spots in Switzerland. Buvette les Invouettes in Charmey is run by Gérard Biland, whose expertly made cheeses (Le Gruyère d’Alpage AOP, Vacherin Fribourgeois) are the base for the silky, carefully crafted blends served at his charming buvette, an alpine chalet where the cheeses are actually made. He serves a classic moitié-moitié fondue (which means half-half) made with half Vacherin Fribourgeois and half Gruyère, as well as his own custom blends like Fondue de la Patronne and Demoiselle. Nearby is Les Mongerons, located in a homey family-owned alpine hut that’s a steep 25-minute walk from the parking lot. It offers excellent views of the medieval Gruyère Castle and a nice selection of fondues including Vacherin, moitié-moitié, and a rarely seen chèvre fondue, made with tangy goat’s milk cheese. Travellers to the village of Gruyère will not be disappointed by the selection of high quality fondue taverns lining the inner castle walls. The cosy wood-panelled Auberge de la Halle has a selection of eight, including fondues spiked with porcini, truffles, or chanterelles, not to mention their curious Fondue Royale made with Chantilly cream.
Deeper in the Romandie (the French-speaking side of Switzerland) is Canton Neuchâtel’s Pinte de Pierre-a-Bot a former clubhouse for the Neuchâtel golf course built in 1928 and perched atop a woodsy hill above the city. Its menu features over 30 fondues including a Neuchâteloise, the classic fondue made with Gruyère and Emmental, white wine, kirsch, and a clove of garlic, but they also serve fragrant pots of bubbling cheese laced with absinthe, calvados, Guinness, rosé, curry, or spiked with leeks, ham or zucchini.
Geneva’s historic 1930s lake-perched bathhouse, Bains des Paquis, is home to one of the city’s best fondue spots, La Buvette des Bains. Every September, the locker rooms are converted to an intimate dining room with wood-fire stoves where you can dip your bread into steamy curd concoctions or take in a Friday night folk dancing performance.
Fondue is the star. A diva who works alone. For a drink, one must order a Fendant, a stony Swiss white wine, and/or black tea, but nothing else, not even ice-water. In truth, I prefer to pair my fondue with red wine as it helps digest and flush out the sodium, but it causes my Swiss-German friends so much irritation to break the rules, that I no longer bother.
Though it’s gloriously eaten year-round on Switzerland’s French side, the melted cheese and bread dish is considered an exclusive cold weather meal on the more dogged rule-abiding Swiss-German speaking side. Here, it’s often served after a day on the piste or a long hike as a reward for your hard work. Fondue is not just eaten here, it’s earned. Nowhere more so than Vals’s Restaurant Ganni, a 45-minute hike from the village, where Peter Zumthor-designed thermal baths are located. The 18th-century timber mountain stübli serves up glossy fondues spiked with ginger or kirsch that are best finished with a round of vieux poire digestives, which promise to keep you warm during the hike back down.
Restaurant Zugerberg, situated between Lucerne and Zurich, is another recent favourite and located on the scenic mountaintop overlooking the city and lake of Zug, a low-tax, expatriate enclave of Switzerland. Their delicious house fondue is made with bacon and apple cider and promises a fruitier and smokier alternative to the kirsch and wine-laced fondues and is also ideal for kids. They’ll also make a version of it without the bacon, which is especially popular with Muslim visitors.
In Zurich proper, locals will tell you that fondue is for tourists, and the obvious places in the city’s old town are living proof. But the best fondue spots are deeply hidden, as are many things in the city. Jurablick is a sort of fondue speakeasy, cloaked deep in the woods on Uetliberg Mountain. Getting to the homely stübli requires a 20-minute trek through the forest, so bring a torch and follow the scent of melting cheese, which in this case is a mixture of Gruyère and Appenzeller Surchoix cheeses laced with a potent cherry kirsch. Tessin Grotto, on the opposite side of Zurich, offers an especially cosy dining room with parquet floors, a gorgeous hunter’s fireplace and a selection of fonduta (Italian for fondue) from Switzerland’s Italian-speaking canton, Ticino. They include fondues with spicy salami, grappa, chestnuts and gorgonzola that offer a hint of Mediterranean flavours. Wirtschaft Degenried, on the opposite side of Zurich, is another local favourite with vaulted wood ceilings and antler chandeliers and serving up a mix of Gruyere, Alp Cheese, Appenzeller and Vacherin.
Some visitors can’t resist the idea of Zurich’s Fondue Tram, which runs from November to March and is certainly not free of tourists. If eating fondue in a moving tram, possibly sitting backwards, doesn’t sound nauseating to you, go for it. I was queasy after about five minutes, but the fondue itself wasn’t terrible. Unlike my Swiss friends, I’m no traditionalist, but I do prefer my fondue in a stationary dining room.
(Featured image: Fondue is not only tradition in Switzerland, but a way of life. The melted-cheese dish comes in a variety of assortments, but there are serious rules that come along with this sensory indulgence.)