The Swiss staple was perhaps the world's first orchestrated foodie trend, with a shady government agency pulling the strings
The history of fondue is as messy as the dish itself. A giant pot, known as a caquelon, filled with a gently bubbling melted Gruyere cheese, sweet and salty. Into this pool you gently steep a crusty piece of stale bread skewered on a long spike. It emerges, after its lactose baptism, as a fully fledged meal, rich in earthy savours and heart warming and artery hardening splendour. You repeat the process until either every piece of bread is gobbled up or the entire bowl of pale yellow dip is exhausted. And in the process, you tacitly support a century-old cartel that once held Switzerland in a vice grip of bureaucracy.
But shady autocratic snacks rarely taste this good.
Fondue, taken from the past participle of the French verb fondre (to melt), goes back a little bit further than the plans hatched in the Swiss Alps in the 20th century. Homer, the classical Greek poet, alludes to something similar in The Iliad nearly 3,000 years before, when he mentions a “mixture of goat’s cheese, wine and flour.” The earliest modern recipe is attributed to the Swiss, though, with a 1699 Zurich book calling for “grated or cut-up cheese to be melted with wine, and for bread to be dipped in it,” fondue in all but name.
The hearty cheese dish stayed remained a staple of regional Swiss cuisine up until the 1930s, when dairy farmers in Switzerland found that their bounteous supplies of cheese were far outstripping the financial capabilities of war-ravaged France and Germany. This prompted a group of Swiss cheese producers to work together and form the Schweizer Käseunion AG, better known as the Swiss Cheese Union.
Backed by the national government, the union took control of everything related to cheese production in Switzerland in 1914, from quotas on how much each farmer could produce, setting prices, and even restricting which varieties of cheeses could be made – reducing the number from more than 1,000 to just seven. And amongst those seven, Gruyere and Emmental were the most widely produced.
The Union’s ability to control the entire country’s cheese industry was rocked by the effects of the first World War. With their neighbours unable to import cheese in any great numbers, the Union rapidly needed to figure out how to increase demand or risk having to tell their farmers to restrict even further their quotas. And so, they went into the marketing business.
One of the reasons why the English-speaking world often refers to Emmental, the hard cheese with its distinctive dimples, as the catchall ‘Swiss cheese’ is down to the hard work carried out by the Käseunion to boost its popularity around the world. At trade fairs and expos, branded with yodelling girls and bell-wearing cows, the cheese was pushed as a robust export of Alpine life. But even more successful was the marketing campaign between the 1930s and 1970s which saw the cartel turn a peasant dish into the height of European sophistication, leaving millions of red lacquer fondue pots lying languishing at car boot sales for decades to come.
The reality is that fondue wasn’t even a well-known dish in Switzerland before the Schweizer Käseunion worked its magic, rather a fairly common dish enjoyed by mountain dwellers, where weather conditions were not amenable to a ready supply of freshly baked bread.
Seeing an opportunity, the Swiss Cheese Union saw an opportunity, realising that considering it takes quite a lot of cheese to fill an entire caquelon, fondue could be the perfect solution to an abundant supply of Emmental and Gruyere. The union posted recipes for fondue to every household in Switzerland, recommending they try blending the two cheeses with a dry white wine and garlic, known as moitié-moitié (French for half and half). The rest of the world was inundated with images of green Alpine hills with roaming cows or fresh-faced men and women bending over fondue pots like gleeful gourmands.
While it’s clear that cheese fondue’s popularity was lost considerable ground to its chocolate reinvention of the early 2000s, there was a time when it was the world’s most suave and cultured dish. As for the cartel that oversaw its glory days? It was finally disbanded in 1999, in part due to a series of corruption convictions amongst its officials. Though credit it where credit is due, even in its final days it tirelessly supported its cause – including convincing members of the Swiss national skiing team to compete in Emmental-inspired ski-suits.
Five ways to eat fondue... Though moderation is advised: