The name fondue originates from the French term for "to melt," but the origin of the dish dates back to Switzerland in the late 1600s. A recipe from a book published in Zurich called for cheese to be cut and melted with wine, and for bread to be dipped into the mix, similar to how we have it now. The term "cheese fondue," up until the 19th century, was considered to be a dish consisting of cheese and eggs, similar to a kind of soufflé, and was mentioned by the famous epicurean Brillat-Savarin.
In 18th- and 19th-century Switzerland, cheese fondue as we know it began to take form, mainly as a way of using old breads and hard cheeses during cold winter months. The inside of the fondue pot, known as a caquelon, is rubbed with a clove of garlic. The wine and cheese are then added, along with a cherry brandy known as kirsch, and slowly melted over a small burner until smooth and creamy. Once this is all prepared, the diners dip pieces of bread into the mixture with special elongated fondue forks.
As the dish continued to evolve over the years, including such changes as the addition of cornstarch to create a better emulsion of wine and cheese, fondue become synonymous with Switzerland. The Swiss Cheese Union heavily marketed it during World War II to increase the consumption of cheese during times of food rationing. By the 1960s, fondue was becoming popular in the United States, and various forms were being eaten; instead of the traditional bread being dipped into cheese, many people dipped fruits and sweets into melted chocolate fondue. Another variation, fondue bourguignonne, allowed diners to cook thinly cut beef in butter and hot oil.
Hosting your own fondue party is a great way to experience the essence of fondue. Dining on fondue is a communal experience to share with friends, and the dish is simple enough to make on your own. Recipes for basic cheese fondue usually call for traditional cheeses such as Gruyère and Emmenthaler, as they tend to have the best consistency, but you can try it with other cheeses such as Cheddar. As long as you keep the cheese just warm and not too hot, since boiling cheese tends to make it clump and ball up, your fondue will be a rousing success with your guests.
It's not surprising that fondue was considered a national dish of Switzerland; it's the quintessential meal for a cold winter evening. Fondue is perfect for all sorts of occasions, whether you're having a small gathering of friends or relaxing in the lodge after a long day of skiing, and with the various sweet and savory possibilities, it can work for any meal of the day. The best part is how easy it is to make — all you need is a stove, some cheese, wine and bread, and plenty of time to sit around and enjoy.