As it’s become a bit of a tradition in our household (five years running) we fire up a good ol’ Neuchatel-style cheese fondue during the holiday season, usually for New Year’s, but this year it happened on Christmas Eve. Preparations are simple, quick, and, depending on where you buy your cheese, pretty cheap.
The fondue has a long history in my family, both the meat and cheese. Usually every New Year’s we’d have one, the other, or both, and occasionally the chocolate. The tradition faded for a while, as they often do, with family members spread out across two countries and several states and provinces, but never disappeared entirely. The majority of my family—across generations—was educated at Neuchatel Junior College in Switzerland, so a taste for the traditional Swiss fondue was well-ingrained. This got a substantial kick in the pants about five years ago as I traveled with my father, his wife, and the lady friend from Geneva to Paris, stopping in Neuchatel for his fortieth reunion.
We had a great cheese fondue at one evening, pulled uphill in a cable car on a cool, foggy night. I wish I could remember the name. But my only photograph of the place showed only a sign that read “Restaurant” beneath Feldschlosschen Biere logo. The aging restaurant served exactly two things—a lamb dinner or a cheese fondue, one group in one room, the other in another.
We took the cheese. It was fantastic. Crunching on diced garlic, the fondue had a flavor that made you wonder just how much booze was in the mixture, and whether any of it had evaporated. With the wine flowing, everyone at our table was getting seriously bombed, and we requested a small salad of some kind to pump some nutrients into our alcohol stream. And what’s great about fondue is that it can’t help but turn into a communal affair. We didn’t know anyone at our table that night, but we were all leaning on each other as we staggered out the door when we were kicked out at closing.
Since that occasion, the lady friend and I have tried to keep the “tradition” going on New Year’s, and were pretty successful—a stroke of good fortune left a family member’s home vacant during the holiday, so we’d invite two other couples out there for fondue, boozing, launching fireworks and other activities unbecoming to adults in their mid- to late- thirties. That tradition lasted a brief three years, until that house was sold.
But I’m talking about New Year’s, which hasn’t happened yet. Well, consider it your good fortune that the lady friend and I were feeling a bit run down from the run-up to the Christmas holiday, and didn’t feel like paying an exorbitant rate for a meal out or want to cook anything extravagant. We decided to have our fondue a little early. A basic, Neuchatel cheese fondue recipe can be found in "Fondues From Around The World." It’s a good place to start, basically two parts Gruyere to one part Emmentaler (about one-and-a-half pounds of cheese is plenty for four people) white wine, lemon juice, some corn starch, a pinch of nutmeg and some fresh ground pepper and you’re good to go. Start with that, and then fiddle to make it your own. As I said before, I like to crunch on garlic, so I dice up a couple cloves and throw ‘em in. Then I fiddle with the wine and Kirshwasser for flavor (I’m of the mindset that more booze is better).
And, yes, the lemon juice and a DRY white wine (I recently used a Chateau Haut Peyruguet Bordeaux, only about 10 bucks and with a screw top—don’t fear the screw top, my pretties, it’s the way things are going—and it’s very tasty to sip while you cook) are important, not only for flavor, but the acidity breaks down the cheese. Oh, and a little family tradition of our own—dunk the bread quickly in a bit of Kirsch before you dip it in the cheese—any chance to get more booze with your meal. And stir that cheese when you dip—it’ll help keep the mixture creamy to the very end. I cook up a half-order for just two people, plus a small chicken Caesar salad for some extra nourishment. A good wine with it? Gerwürstraminer. Sweet, with a little spice to cut through the heaviness. A very good—and very cheap—Gewürztraminer is Fetzer. I’ve found it in a variety of stores from $7-$9. Throw it in the freezer for 20 minutes before serving, and it goes down like pop. Pinot Grigio ain’t bad either.
And then don’t forget the best part—la religieuse. That’s the crisped (but not burnt) hunk o’ cheese at the bottom of the pot created by the hot flame of the burner. Scrape it out of the pot with a wooden spoon (ya don’t want to scratch that porcelain finish) and give a piece to each of your guests. It’s supposed to bring good luck. From my haggard French, I think that literally translates into “the nun.” But in this context, think of it the more as a treat for “the devoted”—special for those that stay to the very end.