My days of skiing in the French Alps, and evenings spent spearing crusty baguette hunks into a soup of cheese beside some rustic fireplace, are a thing of the past. Those trips were a luxury which no longer fit into the framework of our new reLuxe life. Now my days revolve around ducks and goats and shelters that only resemble a ski chalet by virtue of the snow roofs nature provided.
But on a snow-filled weekend like this one, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I can’t help but remember those times and want to bring some of that experience home to the reLuxe Ranch.
We may not have the same altitude or the same lengthy slopes, but thanks to the global economy, we do have cheese! Comté, Gruyère, and Swiss – the key ingredients for making fabulous fondue. We also have Matt’s amazing sour dough bread, not quite as crusty as a day old French baguette, but that’s nothing a few minutes drying in the oven can’t fix.
And as Matt says in his best fake French accent – hee hee hee ho ho ho – there must be wine! And there is. Not Vin de Savoie, but a cheap, tart, crisp, unoaked Pinot Grigio that will get the job done.
I am no expert at making fondue, but I have a lot of experience eating it. Also, in another life, I helped run a Fondue/Raclette restaurant on the Red Sea in Egypt. Yes, Egypt. But that is a story for another time.
Everyone who makes fondue with regularity has a secret, some special ingredient that distinguishes their fondue from every other pot of melted cheese. So, whenever I eat it, I always ask “What’s your secret?”. The answers have been wide and varied, mustard, paprika, extra garlic, a shot of whiskey, butter, fennel powder, Ricard… I can go on, but I think you get the point. Chefs usually also use specific ratios of certain brands of cheese, a luxury we don’t get here in the US where only big name brands make the boat.
I don’t claim to have the best fondue in the world, but I have a few tricks of my own. First, you have to peel and smash a few garlic cloves and rub them all around your pot so their essential oil acts as a coating to help prevent sticking. Everyone uses the garlic trick, but my secret is I leave the garlic in the pot so some unsuspecting cheese-eater will get a zesty zinger here and there.
Next, add wine. And start the fire.
As far as the cheese goes, you can grate it or cut it into small cubes not much bigger than a fresh pea. But prepare it in advance so it is ready to toss in at the exact moment when the alcohol begins to rise like a barely visible miasma about to escape the pot. Don’t wait for it to boil, that will be too late. The goal is to trap that aromatic vin vapor in the cheese. I don’t know why this matters, but trust me, it does.
At just that moment, drop a few handfuls of cheese in, sink the vapor and stir gently. When that begins to sweat and melt, add more. Stir again and add more. Keep adding and stirring until it is all incorporated. Then lower the heat and continue to stir until the wine is integrated into the cheese and the two are seemingly inseperable. This goes quickly on a gas stove, just a few minutes and you are ready to serve.
Just before hollaring “à table!” mix in dollop of Dijon mustard, a large pinch of coarse ground pepper, and a splash of fine spirits like Cognac, Calvados, or in our case tonight, Brandy.
We didn’t have an actual fondue pot with accompanying heat source, so things got tricky. We had to pre-dip and dish our hunks of cheese and bread (or in Matt’s low-carb case meat and sweet potatoes) and make a pile on our plates. We ate some, then went back to the stove, re-heated, stirred, and reloaded our plates. Not exactly the same relaxing experience as on the strip in Tignes or halfway down the mountain at the best little spot in Verbier. But still, the need for cheese was satiated.
As for a recipe, it’s all about ratios that you can adjust based on your number of eaters. You need at least 1/2 pound of cheese per eater. Following is my guideline based on the types of cheese I can reliably find and afford at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. The three cheeses used are very similar, but they each add a hint of something just different enough that it’s worth while to use all three.
- 1 pound Swiss, or preferably Emmantaler (if you can find it at a reasonable price)
- 1/2 pound Comté
- 1/2 pound Gruyère
- 1 cup white wine
- 3-4 garlic cloves
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- Course ground black pepper
- Half shot fine spirits (Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, or Brandy)
- Big bowl of salad greens smothered in your favorite vinaigrette
- Love, lots of it!