Cheese fondue

I was born in the 1970s, which makes Dr W’s gift of a fondue set a pleasingly retro and apposite birthday present. Everybody’s parents had a set back in the day which they used for entertaining, and I remember hiding on the landing listening to raucous parties, then sneaking downstairs once they’d all finished and my parents had gone to bed. I would then while away the small hours eating any remaining cheesy bits and polishing off any leftover wine.

This, dear reader, is how I became a dipso at the tender age of three.

Fondues are fantastic interactive food. I’ve always held that the foods that require you to *do* something with what’s on your plate, whether it’s wrapping stuff in lettuce leaves, dribbling sauce down your arms or making minty little parcels, taste all the better for the work involved. Convivial and delicious – who could ask for more? You can do all the preparation of the fondue on top of the stove, and move it to the table and its little stand with the flame when you’re ready to eat.

I’ve used a mixture of cheeses here – Emmenthal, Gruyere and Comte. Using these cheeses results in a sweetly nutty fondue, and for me the balance of flavours between the three is pretty much perfect.

Cider’s not traditional here (fondue isn’t from Normandy), but it’s great with the cheese mixture, and hell – once you’ve spent all that money on cheese, I don’t want you impoverishing yourself by using good wine on this dish when you could be impoverishing yourself by drinking it instead. Be sure to mix the cornflour into the cold cider before you start to cook – this will make your fondue smooth and will prevent lumpy or greasy bits, making the cheese and other ingredients coexist in happy, glossy suspension.

I have read warnings that you should not drink too much cold liquid during or after consumption of a cheese fondue for fear of solidifying a bolus of melted cheese in your stomach and finding your digestive system horribly overwhelmed (and presumably dying, eventually, of cheese). If you have read similar warnings I can assure you that you can ignore them. I drank like a fish when we christened the fondue set in the picture at the top, and suffered neither indigestion nor death.

To serve three, you’ll need:

Fondue
200 g Emmenthal
200 g Gruyere
200 g Comte
2 shallots
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon cornflour
300 ml medium dry cider
1 tablespoon grainy Dijon mustard
1 shot-glass Armagnac (this is mere posing – I’ve used it because it’s great with the cider and apples, but it’s not absolutely necessary. You can leave it out if you can’t find any)

To serve
1 large baguette
3 large carrots
3 apples (choose something tart like a Granny Smith)
9 new potatoes (Fingerlings, Pink Fir Apple and other nobbly potatoes are great here)

Chop the raw carrots and apples into bite-sized pieces and set aside. Steam the new potatoes whole for 20 minutes and set aside to cool.

Grate the cheeses and mix together in a large bowl. Dice the shallot very, very finely, and stir the cornflour into the cider in a large jug. (Be careful here – when you stir it in, it will foam, so make sure your jug is large enough to stop any bubbles from escaping.)

Put your fondue pot on the oven hob over a low heat, and sauté the finely diced shallots gently in the butter until they are sweet and translucent (about 10 minutes), stirring all the time so they do not colour. Stir the cider and cornflour mixture well, and pour it over the shallots. Bring everything to a gentle simmer.

Still over a low flame, add the grated cheese to the liquid in the fondue pot a handful at a time, stirring after you add each handful until the cheese is melted and incorporated into the cider mixture. Stir in the mustard and Armagnac with salt and pepper to taste (you may not need any salt – taste the mixture before seasoning). Move the fondue pot to the table, light the little flame, and dig in, dipping hunks of baguette, bits of carrot and apple, and whole, tiny potatoes into the gorgeously savoury cheese sauce.

Asterix in Switzerland(seriously) suggests vaguely sexual forfeits for anyone losing a piece of bread in the fondue pot. I have a better idea – if someone loses the bread, tell them it’s their turn to do the washing-up.

French onion soup

A friend of mine is visiting New York for work at the moment. I received an anguished message from him about a French onion soup he experienced at the Crowne Plaza off Times Square. I quote him in full, because it made me laugh.

‘The soup itself is quite nice, but is plugged by a solid lump of melted cheese that is about the diameter of a Camembert, and an inch think. We’re talking essentially an entire Camembert’s worth of American plastic cheese. I don’t mind a delicate top to the bowl, but you could have taken this out, chilled it, and made plastic cheese sandwiches for a hungry family of six.’

Poor him. (I am keeping him anonymous so he doesn’t get any death threats from Americans fond of plastic cheese.) French onion soup isn’t really that hard to get right, but not many restaurants seem to bother trying; the very worst I’ve ever had was, shamefully, in Les Halles, the old market district in Paris. Les Halles is meant to be the birthplace of French onion soup, and Le Pied au Cochon is meant to be a restaurant which specialises in the stuff. Ha. It’s rubbish. The stock’s insipid, the rubbery onions haven’t been left to caramelise, and there’s no booze in sight. The cheesey bread lid is mostly bread, and the whole leaves you with the sort of hurt feeling you get when someone you trusted has stolen your teddy bear and sold it to buy drugs. Avoid.

The cheese you use here is important, but you do have a choice open to you. You can do it the Les Halles way and use Camembert on your giant crouton, which is delicious and, when stirred into the soup, makes it creamy and cheesey and gloopy and glorious.

I consider we’ve been overdoing the soft washed-rind French cheese thing recently (I have discovered a local source of Epoisse, and that Tartiflette the other week had enough Camembert in it to keep your arteries busy for a good six months). So I went the other way with our croutons, and topped them with sweet, stringy Gruyere (actually Swiss, but who’s checking?). Gruyere has a special affinity for the sweetly Madeira-caramelised onions in this soup; try it instead of Camembert some time and see what you think.

To serve six as a starter or four as a main course, you’ll need:

3lb onions, sliced
1 small wineglass Madeira
2½ pints good beef stock or good consommé
Open-textured white bread (ciabatta or a French loaf) – 2 slices per person
1 slice Gruyere per piece of bread
3oz butter
Salt and pepper

Put the onions in a large, heavy saucepan with the butter, and simmer, stirring every twenty minutes or so, for longer than you think you should. You’re aiming to cook these to a golden, caramel unctuousness. I didn’t use a kitchen timer; I put the DVD of Ziegfeld Girl on and sang along with Judy, running to the kitchen occasionally to stir, until Lana Turner did her tragic thing with the stairs and the chaise longue at the end. (Those who are not Judy Garland fans can just set their timers for 132 minutes, but you’re missing a treat.) The onions will have cooked down to a fraction of their original volume.

When your onions are done and you have spent a quiet five minutes being surprised at how Hedy Lamarr was able to look fantastic walking down stairs with fruit on her head and invent spread-spectrum communications without turning a hair, throw the Marsala into the hot pan with the onions and let it simmer away to nothing. Add the stock or consommé, turn the heat right down and bring slowly to a simmer again.

While the soup is coming up to temperature, prepare the croutons. Toast thick slices of bread (I used a grill pan to get good dark, charred lines on each slice), lay the cheese on them and put them under the grill until the cheese starts to brown.

Serve the soup with a crouton floating on top. The soup should soak into the crisp crouton, its heat softening the cheese. Slurp the lot quickly while it’s still deliciously hot.