Swiss Cheese Fondue
Whether your preference is Wallace and Grommet contemplating a wedge of Wensleydale, the Monty Python "Cheese Shop Sketch," or just the varied wordplay afforded by this glorious food form (Yes, sir, cheese my baby; The best things in life are Brie; or the cartoon where the "Cheese Divers of the Pacific" are bringing up a Manta Ray Jack), no one can doubt that cheese makes a great foundation for comedy. It also, however, makes a great foundation for some of the world's most glorious dishes—and is pretty darn good just on its own.
Clifton Fadiman described cheese as "Milk's leap to immortality." In a way, cheese has in turn immortalized other things—how many towns are known primarily because of the famous cheeses that come from them (Cheddar, England, for example, or Gouda, Holland)?
It probably won't come as a surprise that cheese has been around for a long time. Cows, sheep, goats, yaks, and buffalo were being milked long before refrigeration was available. It's not really known when the first cheese was made, but the earliest evidence thus far is some remnants, dating from 2300 BC, found in an Egyptian pot. Cheese making was probably somewhat haphazard until the happy discovery of rennet, a substance found in the stomachs of young mammals that causes milk to curdle, most likely discovered because cleaned animal stomachs made such useful bags for carrying milk (ah, the good old days). With rennet, cheese making became a lot easier, and a lot more popular.
Apicius described dishes made with cheese (caseus) when recording the dining habits of Imperial Rome, and it was to invading Romans that the British Isles owe their knowledge of cheese-making. The art of creating cheese improved over the centuries, and by the time of Charlemagne's reign, France was already developing some of its finest fromages. By the beginning of the 15th century, Charles d'Orléans, father of Louis XII, was ordering Bries by the dozen to give as New Year presents.
Nearly every small town in Europe and England developed distinct cheeses over the centuries. I have enjoyed discovering many of them on my travels. In England, most pubs offer a "ploughman's lunch," which consists of a slab of the local cheese, fresh bread and butter, a pickled onion, and usually a small salad. Wonderful cheese shops abound. On the continent, one can hardly avoid cheese. Among my favorites are France's Boursault, rich and sweet, and Italy's Stracchino, smooth and big flavored. I love a good sharp Cheddar, ripe Brie, Stilton or Roquefort, Peccorino, aged Parmesan (not the grated stuff), Feta, Gruyère, Camembert, Limburger—well, I could go on for pages.
Today, we have access to an unprecedented number of cheeses. Speedy shipping has made a wide range of specialty cheeses available all over the world. However (alas), there is a down side to all this availability. The rise of mass production (which, for cheese, began in 1851) and, more recently, the proliferation of grocery store chains have brought about a decline in specialty cheeses. Why spend months or years creating exquisite, hand-made cheeses when you can nip down to the local supermarché and pick up a very nice, if somewhat standardized, cheese. A hundred or more cheeses have been lost already in Italy and France. (Today, in France, more than 80 percent of the cheese is factory-made.)
What can you do to help? Well, you can avail yourself of some of the wonderful specialty cheeses that are available, instead of grabbing "the same old thing." You could also check out organizations that are trying to preserve heritage foods and regional cuisines, such as Slow Food, a movement that started in Italy but which has spread around the world, with a "convivium" planned for right here in Chicago. We're unlikely to stop the decline entirely, because the whole world is tending toward standardization, but it's certainly worth the effort to slow down the trend.
On a more cheerful note, let's eat. Fondue is a name that applies to a wide range of dishes. Most familiar to us in the U.S. are the fondues from Switzerland: cheese fondue, chocolate fondue, and beef fondue (fondue bourguignonne). Larousse Gastronomique, however, lists more than a dozen fondue dishes, from an egg and cheese dish concocted by the famed 18th-century gastronome, Brillat-Savarin, to fascinating butter and vegetable recipes like leek fondue, mushroom fondue, and sorrel fondue.
The following is a simple Swiss cheese fondue. Admittedly, it does not require the use of any exotic, hand-made cheeses, but it is simple, inexpensive, and fabulously tasty. Though easy, it is elegant, and can be used for company, as an appetizer or as a main course. You don't have to have a fondue pot, but you should have some way to keep the cheese melted while you're dining. I use a chafing dish, but a pan on one of those electric warming trays would probably work, if that's all you have. Enjoy.
Swiss Cheese Fondue
¾ lb. Swiss cheese, julienned
1 Tbs. flour
1 clove garlic, halved
1¼ cups chardonnay
dash fresh ground pepper
loaf of French bread, cubed
Toss cheese with flour, to coat. Rub inside of fondue pot or chafing dish with the garlic clove (you may substitute a dash or two of garlic powder—not quite as good, but adequate, if you don't have garlic cloves). Pour in the wine and heat until bubbles just start to rise. Add the cheese slowly, a handful at a time. Stir constantly, always in the same direction. Don't add more cheese until first handful is melted. Don't let it boil.
After all cheese is blended in and bubbling gently, add pepper. If the cheese is not hugely flavorful (not all Swiss cheeses are created equal), you could add a Tbs. or two of dry sherry, to add interest. Serve immediately with bread. (In case you haven't had fondue before, you put a piece of bread on a fork—a fondue fork, if you have one—and swirl the bread in the fondue, gathering around it a dense coat of wine-flavored cheese. Mmm. Then pop it in your mouth—but carefully, since it may be hot.)
If you are serving this to guests, you may want to splurge on white pepper, since black pepper stands out pretty dramatically against the pale background of melted cheese.