The first question that goes around the table as the seven of us sit down to eat is whether or not I am lactose-intolerant. This is a question that the Swiss always ask their foreign friends when they come to try fondue, they tell me, because we’re about to collectively consume and then digest two very large ceramic bowls of thick, creamy cheese and four loaves of freshly baked French bread. Basically, the question is a challenge: Can I handle it?
For someone like me, who probably could not live without her weekly dose of gooey four-cheese quesadillas back home in Tucson, I accept the challenge with pleasure. “Let’s do this,” I say, picking up my thin long-stemmed, two-prong fork.
My friend Valentine, who has generously welcomed us into her adorable downtown Neuchatel apartment, agrees. “Good,” she says, “because fondue doesn’t wait for anybody.”
Now, before we get started, I need to set the record straight: there is only one kind of Swiss cheese that actually has holes in it, and none of the cheese in the concoction in front of us has any. Most of the 450 kinds of cheese specialties here are decidedly hole-less, creamy-colored, and regional. In our pot tonight, my friends have mixed shredded piles of Gruyére, Emmental, and Fribourg cheeses, all white, pungent, hole-less cheeses from in and around the Neuchatel region where they live. (Neuchatel is about an hour from Geneva in the French-speaking part of Switzerland). To the cheese, they’ve added nearly a whole bottle of white wine, garlic, and cornstarch (which helps prevent separation).
As a culinary concept, fondue was first promoted as a Swiss national dish by the Swiss Cheese Union (yes, there really is an entire union devoted exclusively to Swiss cheese) in the 1930s and then popularized in North America in the 1960s. Since then, the notion of fondue has broadened to include plenty of other dishes in which a food is dipped into a communal pot of some kind of hot liquid. Two popular forms, my friends tell me, are, of course, chocolate fondue with fruit (which, by the way, sounds absolutely divine and which I will not leave Switzerland without trying) and fondue chinoise, which is essentially a nod to the Chinese hot pot, where eaters dip raw meat into hot bouillon broth, let it cook until the desired consistency is reached, and then pull it out and eat it with sauce.
We’re starting tonight, they tell me, with the original.
My friend Johanne, who I’ve known for ten years and with whom I’ve traveled now to four different countries—pours small glasses of black bergamot tea into several small tea cups and passes them around the table. “We normally like to eat our fondue with Earl Grey tea,” she says, “although we will have wine, too.” They have bought several bottles of local Swiss wine, something that—as I would learn—is very difficult to get abroad since most Swiss wine is not exported but typically only sold locally. The wine we’re having tonight is a dry, crisp sauvignon blanc, perfect for sipping with piping hot cheese and freshly baked bread from the market.
Jo’s friend Olivier, a French teacher who teaches recently arrived immigrants and refugees at the university, pipes up. “Not just tea and wine!” he says. “You forgot about the kirsch.” He passes me a shot glass filled with a clear liquid that smells distinctly like cherries and tells me to dunk an entire hunk of bread into the liquor, dip the dripping wet bread into the caquelon of steaming cheese, swirl it around, pull it out and place it back on my plate, let it cool for a few seconds, and then eat the entire thing in one bite. I’m wondering why anyone would want to dunk a soggy piece of liquor-drenched bread into this delicately prepared cheese, but, well, I’m here and this is what everyone is doing, so I go ahead and saturate the piece of bread on my fork into the liquor, swirl it around in the cheese, and stuff it in my mouth. It tastes, unsurprisingly, like I just dunked my meal into my beverage and ate the entire thing all at once.
It’s strong, cheese mixed with the scent of cherries and clear liquor, but I love it.
We spend the next hour and a half eating fondue and talking about politics, language, literature, history, architecture, and art—all of the topics I come to Europe to talk about and all of the topics I yearn for when I’m at home in a world where not all of these subjects are privileged, at least not in ways so effortless like this around the dinner table. While we’re sitting at the table and talking, a huge summer storm gathers outside in the streets. Rain starts pummeling the roof and blowing windy, rainy air through the open windows—and the warm tea and fondue become even more of a comfort food.
And even though I’ve never been here before, and even though I’ve never had fondue like this before, and even though I’ve never met five of the seven people sitting around the table, and even though I miss Ryan and our life together, I feel like I’ve come home.
Articles and photographs by Kristin Winet.