It’s fondue time. And in honor of fondue, authentic Swiss cheese fondue, I have…no real story to tell. It’s SWISS, after all.
Yes, we had a harvest gold fondue set back in the day, a cool looking one that would now be called vintage. I don’t remember eating much fondue with it, and my brother said he’s certain it was never cheese, always chocolate, and he didn’t even get that fondue could be anything but chocolate. So we come by our chocoholism honestly.
My inspiration for a beautiful cheese fondue this Valentine’s Day does come from somewhere, the somewhere of old friends–friends that my parents knew from waaaaay back, perhaps before there were any children in the picture. They are the most interesting people I know, from their contemporary home with Danish mid-century style furniture to their world travels and gourmet, homemade dinner parties. Not to mention their brilliance. Every member of the family can be described that way: brilliant. Balanced, always, with a magnetic, down-to-earth kindness.
The Constants grew up in Cyprus and came to Michigan where Dr. Constant was at U of M, and then moved to Okemos (near East Lansing). These were the kind of family friends we took trips with, so I remember swimming in a pool in Siesta Key with them and their mama taking our pictures in the sunset on the beach.
Their travels have spanned the globe, and so have her beautiful photos, including back to their home in Cyprus every year—where they happened to be when Ruth landed there with the baby John, when they were brought out of Lebanon in 2006 on military boats. The Constants came to the camp, found Ruth and co., and brought them back to their house where they received much-needed, never-forgotten, TLC.
Manya’s food is legendary; whenever my parents, and then later my mother, would come home from an evening at the Constants, her description of the meal was a fantasia of unusual and delicious. Mom says she went out and bought her fondue after having it at Manya’s.
My sister and I happened on a great serendipity when we reconnected with their daughter in Chicago early on. Here’s a girl who respects her mother’s food so much that she won’t eat Greek from a restaurant, only at home. We’d drive back to Michigan together at Christmas, and Nadina would tell us in detail her mother’s specialties, including the fondue that was their family Christmas tradition.
To hear this told—of the broth and meats and sauces and cheeses and breads—is to make one long for the fondue pot, and the people you love gathered around it.
Now that I have, finally!, my fondue, I will get after all of its best iterations, the broth and the chocolate too, of course. I wanted to start, though, with the authentic, the melty cheese and wine with dippers limited only by your imagination. The Nordics serve this meal with hot black tea, as a counterpoint to the richness of the cheese. I’m all for that, and for veering my fondue in a direction I can’t seem to avoid…I pulled out the za’atar! And I’m telling you, it imparted such a wonderful, harmonious flavor note to the fondue, sprinkled over every cheesy bite.
Isn’t that something, just when you think you have no real story to tell, there it is. And here is the fondue. Tell us about yours if you make it, so we can gather around the pot right here.
Cheese Fondue (with…za’atar…)
A mix of cheeses is delicious for the fondue, but one good meltable cheese—Gruyere—works wonderfully too. Buy the highest quality cheese you can find. The amount here filled my pot about halfway, but for a crowd, double the recipe with ease. Serve with crisp white wine and hot black tea. Oh, and be ready for the strong aroma of the cheese as you eat….
5 cups grated Gruyere, or a mix of Gruyere, Jarlsburg, and Emmentaler
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 clove garlic, halved
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
Za’atar, for garnish
1-inch cubes of good bread (go fruit-nut bread too), blanched broccoli and cauliflower, fennel slices, bell pepper, crisp apples, pears, grapes
Combine the grated cheese with the cornstarch in a medium bowl.
Rub the bottom of a 2- or 3-quart saucepan with the garlic half, and do the same with the ceramic fondue pot. Leave the garlic clove in the saucepan. Bring the wine to a simmer over medium-low heat, then reduce the heat a touch. Add the cheese, one handful at a time, and whisk until it melts. Move the whisk all over the pan to avoid sticking, in a zig-zag motion. Keep adding the cheese until it is all melted, then increase the heat to medium, cooking until the cheese is slightly thickened, whisking constantly.
Pour the cheese into the fondue pot with the flame lit underneath. Stir regularly as everyone dips and enjoys.