Cheese fondue thaws bodies on a cold day
Sometimes real life is so amazing that it seems like a dream. I had such an experience many years ago when I lived in Belgium.
My family had friends who lived in France, and my parents decided we would spend the Christmas holiday with these friends in Switzerland.
We packed our old, sky-blue Volvo and drove the eight hours or so it took to get us over the French and Swiss borders, finally arriving at nightfall in the snow-covered village of Tramelan, a small hamlet in the French Swiss Jura mountains. It had one main street, one Catholic church, a grocery store, a bakery and a post office — the essentials of life!
Our friends invited us to spend the day and evening meal with their friends, who lived outside the town in a 17th-century farmhouse. Fresh snow had fallen in the mountains — a beautiful thick snow that covered the tall pines and house roofs.
But the sky was clear blue and the sun was shining as we drove our car through it on a winding road to find the farmhouse up in the foothills. The residents were farmers and had many children, so once we got there, each of us was outfitted with shoes and skis from the many pairs the family owned.
But first, we took a sleigh ride behind their horses through the fluffy snow. Then, we grabbed sleds and slowly walked a mile or two up the mountain road, pulling them behind us. When we got to the top, we jumped on our sleds and rode them down the whole way on the narrow curvy road laughing and shouting as we went.
Once back down by the farmhouse, we strapped on skis and skied down the small slopes surrounding their fields. As dusk fell and our voices became muted from fatigue, we managed one more time down as the lights in the farmhouse came on and shone onto the darkening landscape.
The magical glow pulled us away from the cold and the dark as, exhausted, we shook the snow off our boots and pant legs in the entryway. We then entered the dining room, where candles burned on the long wooden dining room table set for more than 20 of us, as if for a feast.
In the corner, a huge wood-fired oven covered with ceramic tile warmed our chilled fingers and toes. We threw our wet mittens and scarves on top of it to dry them out as steam rose from the dampness. Then and only then were we ready to sit down to supper.
Our hosts brought baskets full of cubed French bread, bowls full of green salad with vinaigrette and pots full of brewing hot apple tea to the table to go along with the star of the meal — homemade cheese fondue made in the traditional Swiss manner, using cheeses from the area.
We sat around that table and ate bread dipped into the fondue until we were full. We sipped our tea and all the chill of the day disappeared and all the sore muscles relaxed.
The sharing of communal fondue pots and the conversation and laughter still resound in my mind. And the glow of the lights as we left to go home in the dark was also carried in our bodies from the food and the spirit. It was truly an occasion when I thought I was dreaming because still, after all these years, its intangible spirit lives on in my mind.
When we serve cheese fondue at Christmas or New Year’s, I can still feel the glow of that one day lived many years ago. My friend Irene Gross, who is Swiss and lives in this community, continues to recreate it for her friends here.
Food is that way. It takes us to places we have been and also keeps our traditions alive when we move to other places. On a snowy night this winter, some of us will continue to recreate this tradition and feel that glow.
This is a meal that is fun to make with friends. We often serve a green salad with vinaigrette alongside and Martinelli sparkling apple cider or hot tea. Some home canned fruit is a good finish.
- Clove of garlic
- 2 tbsp. cornstarch (can substitute all-purpose flour in a pinch)
- 24 oz. Swiss cheese (I use half Emmenthal, half Gruyère)
- 4 cups Sauterne or Sauvignon blanc wine
- 4 tbsp. Kirschwasser
- French bread, cubed
- Rub inside of fondue pan with garlic. Toss cheese with cornstarch to coat.
- Heat wine until bubbles start to rise. Add cheese by handfuls, stirring all the time, until melted and blended smoothly. (I add more or less, as needed, for the right consistency, which means until the mixture nicely coats a piece of bread.)
- Add kirsch and a dash each of pepper and nutmeg. Move to the lighted fondue pot and serve with cubed bread.