There's something kitschy, yet enduringly appealing, about fondue. The communal meal popularized in the 1960s has been traditional in Europe for generations and makes for lively gatherings with friends. Ottawa's Absinthe Café is warming things up this winter with weekly fondue parties, so Ottawa at Home asked chef/owner Pat Garland for some tips on creating a successful feast at home.
Start with a classic cocktail to set the mood Pat says, "We like to offer a Kir Breton made of sparkling cider and Cassis." He also suggests sharing some of the fun traditions associated with fondue. "For example, should a woman drop her bread or meat off her fork into the pot, she must kiss the gentleman on her left."
Dating back centuries, the word is derived from "fonder" which is the French verb "to melt." Cheese fondue is very popular in Switzerland where culinary lore suggests it was devised as a way to use up aged cheese and stale bread during the long winter months. Combining cheese and wine over a low flame made for a delicious mixture into which bread could be dipped and softened, making it easier to eat.
Gruyère and Emmental are among the most popular choices for cheese fondue, along with Vacherin Fribourgeois and Comté. The shredded cheese is combined in a garlic-rubbed ceramic or enamelled cast-iron fondue pot, along with dry white wine, cornstarch and other flavourings such as nutmeg or kirsch. Alcohol in the mixture keeps the cheese proteins from curdling, explains Pat, but care must be taken not to let it boil. Each diner has a plate with bite-sized pieces of baguette along with a selection of other dippers such as apple and pear slices, grapes, broccoli florets or cubes of cooked potato.
For a wine pairing, Pat recommends one that can stand up to the richness of cheese fondue. "Rieslings offer a great balance between sweetness and acidity," he says, adding a tasty reminder to scrape out the hard crust of cheese at the bottom of the pot when you are done. "This is called ‘la religieuse' or ‘the nun' and should be broken into pieces and shared."
Fondue Bourguignonne hails from medieval France where, legend says, a pot of boiling oil would be put out in the vineyard so workers could cook pieces of meat at break time. This popular fondue still consists of a communal pot of boiling oil in which pieces of good quality meat - usually beef - are cooked, then savoured with a variety of prepared dipping sauces such as aioli, Béarnaise or tartar sauce. Colour-coding helps diners keep track of their tools; etiquette and safety dictate that the fork that goes into the cooking pot is not to be used for eating. Salad or crudités make a nice accompaniment, and a classic French Burgundy is an excellent wine option. While Pat serves up generous-sized morsels of hangar steak for his fondues, he suggests tenderloin or eye-of-round as other good choices.
The lighter version of the meat and oil fondue is known as Fondue Court Bouillon or Broth Fondue; it is a variation of the traditional Chinese Hot Pot. Very thin strips of beef, pork or lamb as well as small pieces of vegetables are cooked in hot chicken, beef or vegetable broth and enjoyed with dipping sauces. At the end of the course, the broth, brimming with flavour, is served up as a soup.
For a sweet finish, chocolate fondue is always a popular choice. Using top-quality chocolate is important and Pat prefers dark Valrhona Caraque chocolate, flavoured with a touch of raspberry. Anything goes for the dippers, including orange segments, strawberries, green apple, small brownie or blondie squares, figs, grapes or bananas. Use your imagination and look for great seasonal fruits to surprise and delight your guests. Pat suggests a nice tawny port or thick, creamy stout to complete your fun, interactive fondue party.