Posted on February 13th, 2012
A three-cheese fondue filled my belly a number of weeks ago and nearly two years before that. I had invited my friends to share this meal before I left for Europe and again when I returned home. Both times I used Swiss cheeses, imported into the states, boxed cooking wine, and dipping ingredients that were not traditional to this Alpine meal. Presumably, I could have made a “better” fondue at any time during my European stay, but these two meals were The Best I had ever had. I was sharing food and time and conversation with my favorite people in the world, and I didn’t care about the freshness of the cheese, the container of the cooking wine, nor the choice of food bits covered in melted dairy. I don’t think any one else cared either because it seemed like the food was merely an excuse for being together.
Unlike dry white wine and Swiss cheeses, while in France I discovered that my personality did not meld well with a number of cultural traits. The French ex-patriots with whom I have spoken agree that the attitude at work in France was often one of hierarchy and complaint. The formalities in language and interaction felt insincere to me. Without a shadow of a doubt, however, the one thing the French got absolutely right is their relationship with food. Even before one meal is over, the next is being planned. The outlook is not of decadence, but of appreciation and conviviality. Meanwhile, in the United States, we seem to approach food either in hedonistic orgy, or as a friend of mine put it: “I eat to stay alive, but it feels like a waste of time.” Considering the number of fast food chains and microwaveable dinners, I should not have been shocked but this statement. So where does this slow food preparation for communal enjoyment spawn from? Perhaps it comes from the same place as artisanal cheeses and meats: history.
Community in food has existed from the moment we needed a social system to survive. The sharing of a meal meant, “See? I’m taking care of you – remember that when the lion is charging at us.” From the beginning, religions influenced society and reinforced identity through group eating, fasting, and storytelling. A common message of love exists in today’s major religions but one thing that varies is food-rituals. In Judaism there is the Passover Seder and eating kosher, in Islam, Ramadan is the month of fasting during daylight hours, and Christianity recognizes Carnival and Lent – events that may date back to pre-Christian times.
Medicine now scrutinizes the communal meal as one source of health. Studies often cite the sit-down family meal – one where the TV is off and any take-out food present is of the healthy variety – as a way to avoid obesity and help children learn to make good dietary choices. Could being healthier be as simple as taking the time to eat with loved ones? As mundane as it is, eating can be a binding activity that reinforces the bond within family. I know I am not the only kid whose parents relentlessly, day after day, year after year, asked her about school at dinner time. I remember covering many different topics – from describing my interactions with other children and the homework I still needed to do, to observing my parents’ dialogue about work, politics, religion and society – all of which shaped the way I think and act today. My parents and my sister were like coaches or judges, assessing my independent actions and helping me decide what to do in a future, similar situation. Dinner shaped my identity.
Beyond survival, religion, and a sense of self, sharing food may also have been the most practical venue for daily communication in the recent past. France, for instance, is a geographically small country with a climate ideally suited for all kinds of agriculture most of the year. The sit-down meal may be the heritage of generations of agricultural people. Perhaps this is why the deliberate, slow preparation and enjoyment of the meal now goes beyond any religious precedence and beyond a modern concern for diet and health, to all populations of French society. During my farmstead apprenticing, farmers often shared the noon-time meal with the laborers of their farm. In Europe, the largest meal is at noon, after the morning chores are done and before a siesta in the early afternoon to rest prior to the evening milking and feeding of the animals. The noon-time meal can thus be extended over several hours as energy is regained and workers plan projects or problem solve farm issues together.
Whatever reason we find to value sharing a meal together is a good one. For me, Michael Pollan best described cooking and eating in his Omnivore’s Dilemma as “a way to honor the group of people you have elected to call your guests… [and] a way to honor the things we’re eating, the animals and plants and fungi that have been sacrificed to gratify our needs and desires, as well as the places and the people that produce them.” I went to Europe in the first place because my cheese and goat career is important – I wanted to work with the best. But just like Coca-Cola CEO Bryan Dyson said, even if you drop the ball, career will always “bounce back.” Taking the time to feed my body with good food and my soul with good company will always come first.
If you ever feel like honoring your elected guests and gratifying your desires, may I recommend to you the following recipe for Cheese & Love Fondue.
Cheese fondue, the Swiss national dish, is made differently in different regions. This style is a variation of the Fondue Neuchâteloise, which calls for 50% Gruyère and 50% Emmental. I added the Der Scharfe Maxx, a six-month cow’s cheese from the Swiss-German border, for its sweet creaminess to balance the salty, bold Gruyère and the bitter Emmental. This recipe makes enough for 9 to 10 people, as we discovered together. First prepared on the 30th of May 2010 (and again on the 14th of January 2012).
1 ½ lbs Gruyère
1 ½ lbs Emmental
¾ lb Der Scharfe Maxx or Vacherin Fribourgeois
2 c dry white wine e.g. Chablis
3 cloves garlic
Juice of half a lemon
Cornstarch or other thickening agent e.g. Wondra
Splash of kirsch or other dry alcohol e.g. brandy (optional)
Nutmeg, paprika and black or white pepper to taste
Fuel for your fondue set!! I always forget that.
Green & wax beans
Fingerling and other small potatoes
1. Broil, roast, or microwave your vegetables of choice until as tender as you like them. I broiled mine on high with olive oil just long enough to keep their crunch and prime dipping form. I added salt, black pepper and ground red pepper when done. Meanwhile, if you are making potatoes, either boil or microwave (in a covered ceramic dish with a little water for steaming) them until fully cooked.
2. Cut or rip your bread into approximately 1-inch cubes.
3. Grate your cheese. Resist eating grated cheese.
4. Peel your garlic, cut one clove in half and crush the rest. Rub the inside of your pot (preferably enamel coated cast iron like Le Creuset) with the inside of the cut clove. Crush that garlic too.
5. Pour 1 cup of wine into the pot and a glass for yourself. Add the crushed garlic, the lemon juice, and the kirsch to the pot. Heat on medium.
6. When steam begins to rise from the pot, add your cheese and stir frequently. Add the second cup of wine (or more) as needed.
7. When the cheese is melted into the wine, add the nutmeg, paprika and pepper.
8. Watch your fondue as you keep stirring to determine how much cornstarch to add, if any. Your fondue should be just thick enough to cling to your bread or veggie, trailing a thin sting of melted cheese.
9. Serve hot with white wine and friends.