When Donna of There’s a chef in my kitchen chose wine and spirits as the theme for this month’s edition of the world-wide food blogging event “Is My Blog Burning?” I was thrilled. Probably about half of what I cook has some sort of alcohol in it – pasta sauces with wine or sherry; stews with Guinness or cider; tiramisu, pears in red wine… But when I started looking at traditional South African recipes containing alcohol as a central ingredient, I was not exactly spoiled for choice. I don’t know if it’s out strict Calvinist heritage or what, but we are not exactly the greatest innovators when it comes to alcoholic food. Yes, of course we have beer bread but that’s hardly unique to South Africa – the unique feature of our beer bread is that it’s usually made in cast-iron cooking pots on an open fire. But I was certainly not going to fork out dozens of £££s to buy a cast iron pot that will stand disused through the British winter just for one IMBB (I’d rather get a Le Crueset casserole dish first!!). There’s also Cape Brandy pudding, which is basically a date pudding which is doused in alcohol after baking – but here you can just as easily make it without the brandy so I didn’t think this passed muster in terms of having alcohol as a principal ingredient.
So I decided it was time to live a little and to make something that had nothing to do with South Africa but a lot to do with two of my favourite things on earth – champagne and cheese.
Allow me to elaborate. A few months ago while preparing for my birthday party, I was researching champagne cocktail recipes on the web. I spent some time at Epicurious finding some delicious concoctions, and nestled among the champagne recipes I discovered a recipe for three-cheese and Champagne fondue. It sounded like heaven in a pot so I filed it away for future reference but never got as far as making it. But having abandoned my traditional South African aspirations, I decided that this IMBB would be the perfect excuse to dust off this recipe and give it a go. I have the fondest memories of fondues – remember, I was a kid in the 1970’s and with my parents being the bright young things that they were, of course they owned and regularly used a fondue set. When I think back on my childhood memories, they are in fact a smorgasbord of retro images. Wintry Friday nights when I was about 12 years old or so were the best. We’d wait for my dad to come home from work and then my brother and I would help him build a fire in the grate while my mom got supper going. The fireplace was in the “conversation pit”, a snug little area which was sunk about four feet below the floor of the rest of the living area, complete with a U-shaped sofa (to encourage all that conversation, I guess…) and an Arco floor lamp. And of course, to fit in with this décor, dinner simply HAD to be a fondue.
The first fondues we had were cheese fondues as my mom reasoned there was less chance of a childhood fatality with hot cheese than hot oil. We would always have a ton of bread, various sliced cooked sausages and slices of apple to dip and my brother and I would always squabble about who would get which colour fondue fork. Damn, it was good. Later, when my mom thought we were less likely to immolate ourselves with hot oil, we moved on to alternating cheese fondues with oil fondues – a whole new world! I loved the idea of eating tiny bits over a long time and I loved being able to try 3 different dipping sauces with every tiny morsel. Soon I was hard-pressed to decide which one I preferred. I remember having an oil fondue for my 18th birthday party and using my mom’s cutlery (stylish Scandi stuff with black wooden handles) to serve the various dipping sauces. At some point, one of the guests had taken some sauce and returned the bowl to the table without taking careful note of where the handle ended up in relation to the fondue burner. Soon we smelt an odd smell and suddenly there was one of the spoons, handle glowingly fetchingly at the tip as it turned into the world’s most expensive match. Until the day I left home, that scarred spoon lurked in the kitchen drawers, taunting me…
The word fondue comes from the French word “fondre” which means “melt”, but the dish itself apparently originated in Switzerland (as anybody who has read Asterix in Switzerland will know!). Supplies of bread and cheese were made in summer and had to be stored throughout the winter months in the days before freezers. This meant that a few months into winter, people were eating rock-hard stale bread and eating rock-hard (and possibly rancid!) cheese. The one way that they found to make this more palatable was to melt the cheese together with a little wine and to dip the stale bread in it, which cheered things up immensely – and thus the fondue was born. It has been somewhat refined over the centuries and today, at its most basic, consists of two types of cheese, flavourful liquid (such as beer or wine) and some flour for binding – and given these basics you can just imagine the variations available. Each canton in Switzerland has put its own unique fondue recipe and the cheeses and liquid used in each area vary surprisingly. For example, in Neuchatel (where the fondue supposedly originated) the cheeses are Gruyère and Emmentaler which are combined with Neuchatel white wine; but in Eastern Switzerland, the cheeses used are Appenzeller and Vacherin a Fondue, combined with a dry cider. As far as your choice of cheeses goes, generally a fondue will contain two types of cheese and these should be from the same taste “family” (e.g. blue cheeses, pasteurised cheeses etc) and here are some ideas:
- Cheddar, Colby, Longhorn, Monterey Jack
- Emmentaler, Gruyère
- Edam, Gouda
- Provolone, Mozzarella, Scamorza
- Blue Cheese, Roquefort
- Parmesan, Romano
- Cream, Neufchatel, Cottage, Ricotta
- Camembert, Brie, Brick, Muenster, Bel Paese, Port du Salut, Limburger
Oil fondues more probably originated in France where workers harvesting in the fields wanted to eat freshly cooked food, but could not go all the way home for a meal. So the obvious solution was to bring along the raw ingredients and then cook it in hot oil over a fire wherever you found yourself at lunchtime – and voila, the oil fondue was born! A healthier variation on this theme is said to have been imported from Asia, where you cook your food not in boiling oil but in boiling broth. And then of course there is the chocolate fondue which we won’t even go into this time… But however you choose to do it, a fondue remains a great way for friends to get together for a sociable evening and it gives everyone something to do, while freeing up the host/hostess to join the party instead of slaving away in the kitchen, and for that alone it gets my vote. For those of you considering a fondue party in the near future, here are some tips to make sure it’s a roaring success (as opposed to a roaring inferno!).
One of the reasons that I thought this might be a fun recipe to make on this occasion was because I knew my two best friends in the world would be staying with me for two days. Bronwyn (who you have seen mentioned in previous posts on this blog) recently moved to London and Andréa is visiting briefly from South Africa, so I thought a fondue would be a fun way to spend Friday evening. We got off to a good start, toasting our little weekend get-together with copious amounts of Pimms and lemonade – which, considering what happened later, was probably where all the chaos started… First I discovered that while comparing prices of cheese in the Tesco, I had ended up taking a block of Comté instead of the identically packaged Gruyère that I was actually after, but this turned out to be the least of my worries. Anyway, we were all in the kitchen, chatting and sipping our Pimms and indulging Andrea’s fascination with England’s mind-boggling array of potato crisp flavours by trying a selection. Since the recipe called for champagne and I was busy preparing the cheeses, I asked Bron to open the bottle of Spanish Cava that I had bought for this purpose.
She had got the wire cage off and momentarily turned away to get a cloth to grip the cork when suddenly… POP! OK, more like a gunshot than a pop, and while we were still staring in stunned amazement at the source of the sound, the fountain of Cava just started spurting everywhere. Amid much yelling and cursing (yes, I’m afraid that was me…) I grabbed the bottle and got it across the kitchen and into the sink, but my then most surfaces were already swimming in sticky booze. Lovely. Possibly using the bottle within 30 minutes of having it bouncing around in the trunk of my car was not the best idea. But undeterred, we mopped up and I carried on slicing the rinds off the cheese, chatting away until… both my concentration and my hand slipped and I managed to slice my left thumb open. Even lovelier. More cursing, lots of bleeding and applying of pressure while holding my hands aloft while Bron and Andrea looked worriedly on. But like the trooper I am, after bandaging the sliced digit I persevered and finished making the fondue.
Now one of the problems of living so far away from your parents’ house and other assorted friends and family is that you have nobody from whom to borrow a fondue set. Fondue sets are one of those things that you either a) receive as a wedding gift (I didn’t and I still feel cheated – I mean, how can you be properly married if nobody gave you a fondue set???) or b) borrow. In fact, I’m not sure I know anybody who has actually bought their own fondue set! On Friday morning I did toy briefly with the idea of buying a cheap fondue set especially for IMBB 8, but then said cheap fondue set would prove to be indestructible and I would never have an excuse to buy a Le Creuset fondue set… so I thought the better of it! However, on Friday evening that left me with the problem of how to serve a cheese fondue to four people with no a burner or food warmer, without having the entire thing slowly solidifying. So eventually I came up with the idea of upending two ramekins in my biggest frying pan, lighting two tea-lights between the ramekins and then resting the pot full of fondue on top of the upended ramekins (look closely at the picture and you will understand…). Despite looking a bit makeshift, it worked like a charm – the fondue remained at a perfect consistency throughout but also never stuck to the pot or burned. I don’t think this would work for oil fondues, but for cheese or chocolate it’s fine!
Before we get to the recipe, just a few words about making this dish. You will see below that this fondue uses three cheeses – two are the classic fondue cheeses, Emmental and Gruyere, but this recipe also adds Camembert or Brie for creaminess. This breaks the rule about cheese from the same taste families mentioned above but hey, rules are made to be broken. I think it works like a charm and takes some of the sharp edge off the overall taste (but do take care to remove as much of the rind as you can as it really does not melt!). I also really liked the addition of finely chopped shallot as it added to the depth of flavour rather nicely. The recipe calls for brut Champagne, but I substituted a vintage 2000 Spanish Cava and that worked just fine. A word of advice to those of you who have not attempted a cheese fondue before: when you only have the wine and the melted cheese in the pot, don’t panic if the two remain totally separate (cheese in a lump at the bottom and wine floating on top) – as you stir in the cornstarch they will slowly bind together to make a creamy sauce. If you have stirred in all the cornstarch and they are still separate, stir in more cornstarch mixed with water a little at a time until the fondue becomes creamy. For dipping, we used baguette cubes, grissini and sliced apples, but next time I would also like to try whole button mushrooms, blanched broccoli florets and possibly cooked cocktail sausages.
And finally, without further ado, here is the recipe (from Epicurious)
THREE-CHEESE FONDUE WITH CHAMPAGNE
4 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 ¼ cups dry (brut) Champagne
1 large shallot, chopped
2 cups coarsely grated Gruyère cheese (about 7 ounces)
1 1/3 cups coarsely grated Emmental cheese (about 5 ounces)
1/2 cup diced rindless Brie or Camembert cheese (about 3 ounces) (Ed: I used Brie)
Generous pinch of ground nutmeg
Pinch of ground white pepper
1 French-bread baguette, crust left on, bread cut into 1-inch cubes
Stir cornstarch and lemon juice in small bowl until cornstarch dissolves; set aside.
Combine Champagne and shallot in fondue pot or heavy medium saucepan; simmer over medium heat 2 minutes. Remove pot from heat. Add all cheeses and stir to combine. Stir in cornstarch mixture.
Return fondue pot to medium heat and stir until cheeses are melted and smooth and fondue thickens and boils, about 12 minutes. Season fondue with nutmeg and white pepper.
Place over candle or canned heat burner to keep warm and melty as you dip. Serve with bread cubes, green apple chunks, boiled new potatoes or charcuterie.