Research: The History of Fondue

Tuesday, January 10, 2017
Remember fondue? A lot of today's youths probably don't. Or at least, they never experienced the time that it was such a huge part of home entertainment. You couldn't escape it in the '80s. It's a dead food trend, but just because something is no longer a big part of popular food culture doesn’t mean it’s bad, or that it wasn’t worthy of its time in the sun. As you ease into the colder months, there’s actually a lot to be said for dipping hearty bread into bubbling hot cheese. So although fondue is about as hip as the Macarena right now, we should all still have a lot of affection for it. But how did it get its start?

Well, you’re going to have to go pretty damn far back for the answer to that. Like as far back as Homer’s Iliad, which mentions a dish made of melted goat cheese, wine, and flour. Unfortunately for Greece, they can’t claim credit for the idea of modern fondue, though. That honor goes to Switzerland. The practice of dipping bread in melted cheese cooked with wine first appeared in a Swiss cookbook in the late 17th century, though Swiss citizens were likely already preparing it during the colder months when bread and cheese were some of the few fresh ingredients they had access to. The word fondue is from the French for “to melt”, and was first referred to as such in 1735, making the jump to English in 1878. Took us long enough, didn’t it?

In the 1930s, the Swiss Cheese Union served as a cartel to retain control of cheese production. They very cleverly pushed for fondue to become a national dish of Switzerland. It worked, and after lobbying to restrict cheese production to a very few varieties, they were able to maintain a stranglehold on a massive amount of wealth. In fact, Swiss cheese makers pretty much ruled the country’s economy for about 80 years. And here you thought cheese was boring.

Cheese fondue isn’t the only kind, of course. In the Middle Ages, field workers in France would stick raw meat into a communal pot of boiling oil whenever they could catch a few minutes off. Chinese hot pot is basically fondue with broth as the cooking liquid. And Americans sweetened things up, as we are wont to do, by developing chocolate fondue in the mid-20th century. But if you want to honor the true origins of fondue, then go liquefy some Gruyere. You don’t need to be a trendsetter to eat well.