A brief history of cheese fondue

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cooking / food

When the first flurries of winter creep over the land, thoughts turn to comforting foods like fondue. When people think of fondue they think of pots of melted steaming cheese, and bread. Inspired by the alps, and visions of “The Sound of Music“, fondue parties became popular in the 1970s, and diversified to the likes of fondue bourguignonne where meat is cooked in oil, fondue chinoise (basically a hot pot using broth), and the ubiquitous chocolate fondue. At one point it may have gotten out of control somewhat, as humorist writer Eugene Epstein, remarks upon in his 1968 book “Once upon an Alp“. Tongue in cheek he mentions fondue irlandaise, which is new potatoes cooked in boiling water, and fondue suédoise – meatballs cooked in whale oil.


When did cheese fondue originate? Legend has it fondue originated high alps of Switzerland, a meal derived from the leftover remnants of cheese, some wine, and Kirsch cooked together and eaten with stale bread. But apparently this is a myth, and appeared in the low-land regions of the French-Swiss cantons. The earliest known recipe stems from a cookbook published in Zurich in 1699 by Anna Margaretha Gessnerin. The recipe was titled “Käss mit Wein zu kochen” – cooking cheese with wine. The word fondue originates from the French verb fondre (to melt), used as a noun.


Anna Margaretha Gessner-Kitt: Kochbuch (1699) p. 254.

Isabella Mary Beeton (1836-1865), author of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, described a recipe for cheese fondue on page 818 of her epitome work. Its ingredients included: 4 eggs, the weight of 2 in Parmesan or good Cheshire cheese, the weight of 2 in butter; pepper and salt to taste. But it, like many recipes of the 18th and 19th centuries they related cheese fondue to some form of scrambled eggs with cheese, or indeed a cheese souffle.  In “Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion”, published in 1887, “Cheese Fondue” implied a concoction made of a quarter of a pound of cheese, six eggs, three tablespoons of butter, a teaspoon of salt, and 1/8-th of a teaspoon of white pepper. Many of the recipes of the period used eggs of some form, and the cheese was often Gruyere.

The first true Swiss versions of fondue likely consisted of a combination of wine and cheese, and cornflour was not added until the early 1900s to create a smooth emulsion. It was popularized as a national dish by the Schweizerische Käseunion (Swiss Cheese Union) in the 1930s. A expansive marketing campaign saw caquelons (fondue pots) sent to ski resorts, and even distributed to the Swiss Army, whose soldiers brought the recipe for fondue home to their families. The first “ready-made” cheese fondue packets appeared in 1955, made by the Swiss company Zingg AG (1850).


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