#64 How Fondue Became Popular

Written by Food Non-Fiction July 1, 2017

Searching for an origin story is not easy...the origin story of fondue was no exception. Sometimes, there were things named fondue that weren't really fondue as we know it, and sometimes there were things that sounded kind of like fondue, but we weren't not sure if it was close enough to count. For example, an early mention of something that sounded a bit like fondue was in Homer's Iliad (which is from somewhere between 700 to 800 BCE). The mention in the Iliad was of a goat's cheese, wine, and flour mixture, which was melted. Sounds kind of like fondue...but does it count? It certainly wasn't called "fondue" back then. So for this episode we dug deep, sometimes switching over to Swiss Google to get Swiss articles.

Fondue for the Cold Winters

While there seems to be some uncertainty about it, one story of fondue origins has gotten a lot of traction. It's possible that fondue originated as a peasant food in Switzerland during around the 1600s. When fresh foods were limited during winter, people needed to find ways to use foods that were prepared during warmer months and had gotten stale, such as old cheese and bread. So they melted the cheese, and dunked the stale bread in which softened it. So fondue provided a warm meal, which could soften stale bread, and everyone could eat sharing one pot, all huddled around the fire together. 

The Swiss Cheese Union

What we do know for certain is that there was a cookbook in 1699 from Zurich about cooking cheese with wine. At this time, the term “fondue”, which is the french word for “melted”, was not yet applied to the dish that we know as fondue today. Back then, fondue was the name of a dish with eggs and cheese in it that is described as being sort of like a soufflé. Over time, the melted cheese dish that we love just took over the name. But fondue didn’t get popular just because it’s delicious. It needed a catalyst to push it into the mainstream at the right time. Fast forward to world war one and the creation of what would eventually be called Swiss Cheese Union. There is an old episode of an NPR podcast that talked about the Swiss Cheese Union - they told the story of how the Swiss Cheese Union made fondue popular. So...the Swiss Cheese Union was the catalyst.

Let’s start from the very beginning. According to Swiss Federal Archives, soon after the start of the first world war, the “Association of Swiss Cheese Export Firms” was founded to ensure stable sales of Swiss cheese in the face of the uncertainties of war. The association was given control of purchasing and exporting cheese, and were given the responsibility of calculating cheese quotas based on the cheese sales in the previous 2 years - 1912 & 1913. The association was dissolved by the state after the war, but then the members founded a new, private cooperative, this time named "the cheese union". So, what was the point of the new Swiss Cheese Union? Well, before WWI, the Swiss exported a lot of their cheese. After WWI, other countries in Europe had suffered greatly so they weren’t importing Swiss cheeses anymore. This meant that Swiss cheese makers had a much more limited customer base - they had to sell within Switzerland. Instead of trying to beat out the competition for the smaller customer base, they basically formed a cartel. They controlled the amount of production, the price, and the distribution of cheese. Part of that control included supporting only a few types of cheese. Before the war, there were over a thousand types of Swiss cheese being made, but now we’re really only familiar with emmental and gruyère. You know how when you draw cheese, you draw it like a triangle with holes in it? That’s emmental you’re drawing. The Swiss Cheese Union had the goal of selling more cheese - both locally and abroad. What they needed was some awesome recipe that would use a lot of cheese. And of course that awesome recipe was fondue. Fondue...was the answer.

Fondue Gets Really Popular

So the Swiss Cheese Union marketed fondue like crazy! They used newspaper ads, brochures, film, radio, and television. Everyone knew the slogan for fondue: “Fondue isch guet and git e gueti Luune". This meant "Fondue is good and gives a good mood!" In fact, this slogan became so well known that it was simplified to an acronym: “Figugegl!” And of course we know the result of all the fondue marketing - fondue became super popular! You and I - we’ve both had fondue. We’ve all had fondue.

Americans got a taste of fondue in 1939 at the Swiss Pavilion of the World’s Fair in New York, and again at the World’s Fair in 1964, by which time it was better known in America. New York had a restaurant called Chalet Suisse (to be clear, we do mean Chalet Suisse, not the Canadian chain restaurant, Swiss Chalet) and the chef (and eventual owner) there took fondue to new heights. His name was Konrad Egli, and he was quite the fondue innovator. Chalet Suisse started serving not just cheese fondue, but also what people refer to as fondue bourguignonne (a hot oil or broth pot in which you dip meat). 

Creation of Chocolate Fondue

Konrad Egli introduced the new meat and oil fondue dish in the 1950s...then in the 1960s, he introduced CHOCOLATE FONDUE! Chocolate fondue was actually created as a collaboration between Konrad Egli and Toblerone, which wanted to sell chocolate in the US. So chocolate fondue is a North American creation! Konrad Egli's chocolate fondue consisted of melted heavy cream and Toblerone, and he put bits of cake and fruit all around it in a classic fondue presentation.

And that’s the story of fondue.

Tips for Making Fondue 

Author Belinda Hulin shared some great tips with us on how to make a great fondue. Here's what we learned! It's best to have at least 2 different cheeses - you want the primary cheese to be a high fat, hard or semi-hard cheese. For example those can be cheddar, gruyere, or gouda - those are all cheeses that give you a lot of flavor and a lot of body. And then you pair that with something a little softer - for example brie, mascarpone, or some blue cheese. 

Special Thanks to Our Interviewee:

Belinda Hulin - author of "The Everything Fondue Party Book"