Natural Foods Merchandiser

Fondue Flashback

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 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

Fondue Recipes

Smoked Gouda Fondue
Serves 4
Tip: The smoked Gouda in this fondue is both unusual and delicious—a delight for anyone who loves the flavor of smoked foods. If possible, use Gouda imported from Holland for best results.

Make ahead: Grate cheeses and set aside.

Serve with: Cubes of French bread, egg bread or light rye and a variety of blanched vegetables.

8 oz (250 g) Swiss Gruyère cheese, grated
4 oz (125 g) smoked Gouda cheese, grated
1 tbsp (15 mL) all-purpose flour
1 clove garlic, halved
3/4 cup (175 mL) dry white wine
1-1/2 tsp (7 mL) fresh lemon juice

1. In a bowl combine Gruyère, smoked Gouda and flour; mix well to coat cheese with flour. Set aside.
2. Rub the inside of a large saucepan with cut sides of garlic. Discard garlic. Add wine and lemon juice; bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat to medium-low.
3. Add cheese mixture by handfuls to saucepan, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon in a figure-eight motion until cheese is melted. Transfer to fondue pot and serve immediately.

From The 125 Best Fondue Recipes.

Classic Franco-Swiss Fondue
Serves 6
Tip: This is the classic fondue recipe. For milder versions, or for customers making their first fondue foray, replace the German Appenzell with Emmenthal, the original Swiss cheese, or additional Gruyère or Comté.

Make ahead: Grate cheeses and combine in a large bowl.

Serve with: A generous amount of crunchy sourdough bread (a little stale is good) broken into 1-1/2 inch pieces. Vegetables may be used as well.

20 oz (600 g) Gruyère or Comté
10 oz (300 g) Appenzell
10 oz (300 g) Beaufort or Vacherin Fribourgeois (if available)
3-4 cups (.75-1 L )dry white wine
2-4 cloves garlic
6 tsp (30 mL) cornstarch dissolved in a bit of water
3/4 cup (175 mL) kirsch (optional)
1 dash baking soda
1 dash ground nutmeg
Fresh ground pepper to taste

1. Cut the garlic cloves in half and rub the flat sides around the inside of the fondue pot, coating it entirely with garlic essence.
2. On low to medium heat, warm 2 1/2 cups wine. Once warm, add the cheese all at once, stirring continuosly with a wooden spoon or spatula (a Swiss fondue spoon with a hole in the middle is ideal).
3. Once the cheese is melted and is of a uniform texture (turning up heat if necessary), add 1/2 cup wine, cornstarch and baking soda. Continue stirring on medium heat until texture is thick, smooth and homogeneous. Then add pepper, kirsch and ground nutmeg.

Traditional Swiss family recipe courtesy of Thierry Panchaud.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 32

Merchandising Beyond Cheese

The Swiss invented fondue out of necessity centuries ago as a way of using the wintertime staples of alpine village fare: cheese, wine and bread. Today, fondue encompasses any small pieces of food, including meat, vegetables and fruit, cooked or dipped into hot liquid.

Vegetables and marinated meat can be cooked in hot broth or oil. Thus, a fondue display easily can be expanded to include packaged broth, cooking oils and marinade ingredients. Include recipe cards for a tempura vegetable batter, a Szechuan marinade for meat or shrimp and a few simple dipping sauces.

And don't forget dessert fondues. Bananas and spring berries are perfect for dipping in melted organic dark chocolate.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 32

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