Fondue is back. Don't laugh—it's not as cheesy as you think. In fact, the renewed fondness for fondue is a great opportunity to boost specialty cheese sales and cross-merchandise various dipping ingredients, including breads, vegetables and fruit. Whether you're introducing new fonduers to a spectrum of specialty cheeses or urging cheese customers with refined tastes to try a new dip, you'll be well served if you have some combinations to recommend and recipes to share.
Why exactly is fondue making such a comeback? One reason may be the increasingly sophisticated American palate. In general, Americans are now much more open to stronger tasting cheeses, says Ilana Simon, food columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press and author of The 125 Best Fondue Recipes (Robert Rose, 2001). But Simon suggests that other factors are also at work. Baby boomers are influencing this trend as they do most everything food-wise, she says. "Many boomers are now empty nesters and going back to that kind of entertaining partly because it satisfies their new interest in finding unhurried ways of spending time with family and friends."
Gen-Xers are also contributing to the fondue resurgence. "They're becoming interested in the '70s aspect of it. Sales of updated kitschy fondue pots have really skyrocketed the past few years," Simon says. This is of course in line with increased sales of various other '70s styles such as bell-bottom, hip-hugging corduroy pants. Besides, while writing her book she discovered that "almost everyone has a fondue set they got for a wedding or as a gift sometime in the past that is just sitting in a closet, attic or garage and would like to find recipes to go with it."
This is where the retailer comes in. With a little creative merchandising and some free samples, introducing customers to cheeses suited for fondue—and special items to dip in that cheese—can help promote stores' cheese sections.
Cheeses previously unavailable on this side of the Atlantic are finally making their way to food stores in North America. The usual suspects—jack, cheddar and Swiss—now have been usurped by more exotic options. Thanks to increased export and demand, many of the world's best fondue cheeses are readily available, most notably Comté, Beaufort, Gruyère, Emmenthal, L'Etivaz and Appenzell—or Appenzeller in German. Many of these cheeses are made from raw milk, which dramatically improves complexity and character, attributes that can be noticed by even those with the most undiscriminating palates. Since these fondue cheeses must be aged for at least 60 days (up to seven months for the higher-end Comtés), the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers them safe for import.
The key to making a satisfying fondue is knowing which cheeses to combine. "Some fondue cheeses are much stronger than others, so you should not add tons of the spicier ones," says Mary Chol, specialty team leader for Whole Foods in Boulder, Colo. She advises her customers on combinations and proportions both personally and with recipe cards. Appenzell, L'Evitaz and Beaufort are particularly aromatic and should be used more to complement rather that dominate a fondue, she says.
What makes the classic fondues so distinctive are their alpine cheeses, Chol says. "Both French and Swiss fondue cheeses must be produced exclusively from the milk of alpine cows raised in high altitude meadows on natural diets of wild grasses and flowers. The high-altitude milk also contains measurably more butter fat," she says. For the highest quality cheese, retailers should not look for a brand name, which actually indicates lower quality, but the name of the cheese. "It's name is its appellation and therefore means the highest quality," she says.
As further confirmation of authenticity, wheels of the larger Swiss cheeses—Emmenthal, Gruyère and the hard mountain cheeses (Sbrinz, Spalen, Saanen)—are stamped with the trademark hornblower symbol of the Switzerland Cheese Union. "A Gruyère whose rind does not show this stamp is a copy, not the original Swiss cheese." Similarly, Chol says, Comté (a French Alpine Gruyère) "must earn 14 or more out of 20 quality points to have its rind stamped in green with the name of the cheese and the image of a bell."
The classic French Savoyarde fondue recipe (from the Savoy region) features up to four of the following cheeses: Comté, Emmenthal, Gruyère and Beaufort, according to Serge Jaffré, chef at Chez Nous in the mountain village of Chamonix, France. "But since Beaufort is by far the strongest (and most expensive) it is usually used in a lesser quantity and is never present on its own," Jaffré says. Many chefs may only use one or two cheeses, especially a good Comté. Jaffré himself is quite fond of "simply blending a four-month-old Comté with a seven-month-old one." Even more minimalist is Chef René Duvergé of La Bergerie, also in Chamonix, who says, "the only cheese I ever use in my fondue is one high-quality Comté."
Many Savoyard chefs also like to add secret ingredients to their recipes such as a dab of Dijon mustard, nutmeg or white pepper. Others add wild mushrooms to their fondues. "Diced cèpes or morels are particularly good and should be stirred into the warming wine either fresh or dried before the cheese is introduced," Duvergé says. To bring out the full flavor of the mushrooms, use only one of the milder cheeses such as Comté, Gruyère or Emmenthal, he says. Retailers should consider cross-merchandising dried mushrooms in the cheese section—they have a high profit margin and long shelf life. Spices and other fondue ingredients are also ideal for cross-merchandising.
Swiss fondue recipes vary widely depending on which of the country's 23 Cantons they come from. Arguably the most famous Swiss fondue cheese, and one that will add a wonderful complexity to most any traditional recipe, is French or Swiss Appenzell. "This cheese has existed for seven centuries and consists of scalded whole milk, which is then cured with brine, pepper, 20 or more plants and spices, and the sediment from the process of making white wine," according to Simon Jenkins, cheese columnist for Cheesemonthclub.com. Another favorite in Swiss fondue recipes is Vacherin Fribourgeois, says Jaffré.
Unfortunately, says Whole Foods' Chol, "That one is still difficult to find in the United States."
Don't dismiss the fondue fad. It is about savoring good food in good company; it is about cooking together and enjoying the process. For this kind of entertaining, your customers are going to want specialty cheeses and other gourmet ingredients. They'll also appreciate your creative fondue recipe suggestions. If you don't have a full cheese section, consider stocking at least one or two imported fondue cheeses—and don't forget the crusty French bread.
Julian Friedland is a freelance writer and instructor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 30, 32
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 32
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 32