Why is fondue making a comeback? Fondue's transformation from a Swiss specialty to an international favorite began in the late 1950s, at European ski resorts. Tired skiers found that a meal of crusty bread dipped in good Swiss cheese — along with a glass of wine or port — made the perfect finish to a hard day on the slopes.
Of course, the origins of fondue date back further than the aprèsski crowd. It's believed that cheese fondue was invented sometime during the sixteenth century. Swiss farm families needed to find a way to make cheese and bread that had been prepared in the summer last throughout the cold winter months. Melting the hardened cheese in warmed wine made it edible. Aged, crusty bread was the perfect dipper. Thus, the classic Swiss cheese fondue was born.
But the Swiss weren't the only ones to discover the delights of cooking food communally in a large pot. Many Asians celebrate Chinese New Year — China's largest traditional holiday — with hot pot parties. Everyone gathers around the hot pot — traditionally a large copper pot with a chimney in the middle — and cooks an assortment of meat or seafood and vegetables in a simmering broth. At the end of the meal, the hostess ladles out the broth, which by now is richly flavored from all the dipped foods.
And then, of course, there is the French take on fondue, fondue bourguignonne. Cubes of tender beef are cooked in heated oil and dipped in a number of spicy seasonings and sauces. Pickles, relishes, and other garnishes complete the dish. Meanwhile, Italian bagna cauda consists of anchovies bathed in cream and flavored with aromatic garlic. Fresh garden vegetables make up the dippers.
Still, in North America, people are most familiar with the melting varieties of fondue. Fondue's popularity reached its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, when it became a staple at house parties. In the late sixties, cheese fondue was joined by chocolate dessert fondues, made by melting rich chocolate with cream and serving it with fresh fruit or cake for dipping. However, by the 1980s, fondue had fallen out of favor. Along with disco pants and Donna Summer albums, fondue pots were gradually relegated to the closet.
So, why is fondue becoming trendy again? People are rediscovering fondue's basic appeal. There is something infinitely satisfying about gathering together around a communal dish to enjoy a meal. Not to mention the fact that everyone can cook the food according to his or her own preference.
Of course, fondues have become more sophisticated since the 1960s. Fondues made with melted cheese and chocolate are still popular. However, the cheese is as likely to be French Brie or Italian Parmigiano -Reggiano as the two standard fondue cheeses, Swiss Gruyère and Emmenthal. Similarly, chocolate fondues have come a long way since the mid-1960s, when a chef at New York's Chalet Swiss restaurant treated journalists to a bar of Toblerone chocolate melted with cream, accompanied by strawberries for dipping.
At the same time that tastes have become more sophisticated, our definition of what can be classified as a fondue has expanded. In its broadest sense, a fondue is any meal that is served in a communal pot. Fondues can be hot or cold, an appetizer, dessert, or main dish. With a little imagination, soups, casseroles, stews, and even punch can be transformed into a fondue.
Furthermore, while hosts are rediscovering its value as a conversational icebreaker, fondue has evolved into more than just a party food. Serving food fondue-style is a great way to liven up the weekday family meal. And nothing beats a chocolate fondue for two served over an open flame to enhance the romantic atmosphere for Valentine's Day or a special anniversary.