“Everyone got it? If you lose your piece of bread in the fondue, you pay a forfeit! The first time it’s five of the best with a stick; the second time you get twenty lashes with a whip; the the third time you get thrown into the lake with weights tied to your feet!”
—Fondue scene from Asterix in Switzerland
Fondue is probably the national dish most associated with Switzerland and the easiest to provoke the ire of any Swiss gastronome— given the wrong context. We talked to our favorite culinary expert, Adrian Iten, about things fondue—and in turn got a breakdown of Swiss culture via its most famous dish…
So, what is the trouble with fondue?
What is the trouble with fondue? I’ll tell you what: it’s poisoning people! You take a kilo of cheese and a quart of white wine and you melt it at hundred plus degrees then you eat it—and usually you drink tea or white wine with it and Kirsch which is a kind of cherry schnapps… And everyone is doing this in huge quantities without any water and they’re all sick the next day!
What does fondue say about Swiss Culture?
What it says about Swiss culture? First of all that we’re a relatively poor culture, a poor society, not a lot of resources…
That was before, though…
Yes but two hundred years ago, we were an extremely poor nation—the poorest nation in Europe more or less. Fondue is a rural thing, it’s tribal—the cabin, the campfires… But it’s really important to note that it’s definitely a poor man’s menu—they took old wine and old cheese and warmed it because in the winter time you need that sort of warmth. In every culture you have broths or stews: couscous; chili con carne, hungarian goulash—this is common to all the old classical kitchens. You put old stuff together and cook it for hours and hours…
People seem to get upset if you put anything you want in fondue. Strawberries for example. Or even chocolate fondue…
This is a very important subject, I don’t know if we have space to cover it here—
I’ll tell you a story:
Years ago, I was in Little Italy, San Francisco—I’m sitting in this pizzeria run by this Italian woman and a guy orders a pizza, and he gets his pizza, and he asks for parmesan cheese… The Italian woman says:
‘What do you need parmesan cheese for?’
and he says
‘To put on my pizza!’
and she says
‘Parmesan cheese is not going on top of pizza!’
‘I don’t care, I want my pizza with parmesan cheese!’
‘Not in my shop!’
The guy gets up and leaves. He was from New York.
But they were both right. He’s not getting what he wants so he quits. She’s cool too for saying ‘Are you crazy? No parmesan on pizza in this pizzeria!’.
I experienced this a lot while cooking in the kitchens of America—I mean you’d find things like tortellini on pizza, who would do something like that?
But then again, they have the freedom to create whatever they think is cool. Here in Europe we’re stuck a little bit in old traditions, for example putting ice in your single malt—well this is not to be done! But on the other hand if you want ice in your single malt, go ahead—I’m not here to educate you, do whatever you want to do! You want to put strawberries in your cheese fondue, please by all means!
But you’re not serving that…
Oh no! And don’t come to me because you have food poisoning (from your strawberry and fondue confection). And don’t get me started on chocolate fondue—that’s even worse!
Isn’t chocolate fondue the evolution of fondue?
But an evolution means that something is getting more developed.Yes?
So this is not the case. Chocolate fondue is something that happened in the 60s. It has more to do with sexual liberation than anything else…
Like I said we’re not here to educate anyone, but maybe we should provide guidelines—
So what are the guidelines?
If you really want to put stuff in your fondue, lets start with tomatoes. You peel the tomatoes and cube them, that’s pretty cool. Herbs, a nice addition— you know what’s a really good variation of fondue—you take a Vacheron Mont d’or which is a red cheese with a red paste on top–it comes in a wooden box and you take the cheese, which is already soft (it’s made of raw milk) and you put it in the oven slowly heat it–after half an hour you take it out, take the top off and then add little young potatoes, not peeled, you put them in…
That’s an evolution.
What else do we put in fondue? I had fondue with shrimps once…
I got sick. Red spots everywhere…
Is there a typical Swiss cuisine?
We never developed a typical Swiss cuisine because we didn’t really have the money to eat. Take bread soup for instance or onion soups—very simple dishes which come from poor poor things—you’re basically making a soup out of moldy bread. Like the Italians with the crostini or even pizza—that came from poor people not really having anything to eat so they took the remnants of old dried bread and smeared it with garlic and tomato—and this is the idea of crostini…
But Switzerland is no longer a poor nation. Why hang on to this sort of cuisine? What would typify the new affluence?
What is Swiss cuisine? This country is a puzzle of a thousand valleys…
I guess a lot of chopped meats and potato hash browns called roschti—that’s common allover Switzerland. A lot of meat and intestinal stuff like liver, heart and kidneys, stuff like that…
Like the culture it’s a melting of all these influences…
But it’s less heavy, the sauces are less heavy than say the German kitchen, less fantastique than the French kitchen, its a bit more peasant like, without the royal touch or the French thirteen course repast. For me the kitchen of kitchens is the Italian kitchen.The reputation of the Italian kitchen comes out of simple dishes beautifully made. The French kitchen is completely complicated, relies heavily on technique, its highly constructed while the Italians just go to the basics and hardly alter the products and make this incredible food out of the very simple. For me that is the epitome of the philosophy of a good kitchen.
Back to fondue. A chocolate question: you don’t grow cocoa in Switzerland, so why is Swiss chocolate so popular?
Belgians became famous for dark chocolate, we became famous for milk chocolate—because we have a lot of dairy.That’s one thing; the second thing is three or four absolutely perfect chocolatiers— really interesting entrepreneurs like Lindt, Sprungli and Toblerone. One thing that Switzerland is really really good at is precision—and we’re able to take that and translate it into other areas, at any rate, these Swiss chocolatiers, they had the industrial production of chocolate down to the point where the chocolate was just fantastic—it tasted like it was handmade–but it wasn’t!
Okay so the precision you’re talking about in making chocolate, is that also evident in the Swiss kitchen?
Yes! The Swiss chefs were world-famous for accuracy and hard work. Swiss chefs work extremely hard and most would rather choose a Swiss chef over a French one, why? Reliability, accuracy—at least it used to be like that and we had very exact training—the Swiss apprenticeship is unparalleled. I had to train three years to learn how to be a cook—and you really only need half a year in the kitchen to learn how to grill a steak…
I think this helped the Swiss reputation worldwide—its not only the cuisine, its also the hotel managing finesse– a lot of hotel managers came from Switzerland, César Ritz was Swiss for instance, I think the British were bringing so much money into Switzerland and the Swiss (given our background) were used to serving in this very cool and proper fashion. Many of the wealthy were attracted by this service.
It’s typical, we came out of dire poverty and we worked really hard at service—now that we’ve become rich in the last 50 years, things are slipping—the spirit of entrerpreneurship is going down the drain; people aren’t working that hard, no one wants to serve anymore, there’s a saying: the worm in the bacon gets lazy…
And perhaps that is the trouble with fondue.
Culinary expert, Adrian Iten grew up in a family of food cognoscenti and did a three year stint as an apprentice chef in Switzerland. Then he refined his skills at the legendary La Regance’ better known to Sarah Jessica Parker fans as Arabelle from the hit series ‘Sex and the City”. He also cut his teeth at Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne and the Lodge at Pebble Beach in California.
Back home in Switzerland he became a critic for ‘Salz & Pfeffer’ a leading food magazine and also wrote for the food guide ‘Gault & Millau’. In 1998 he opened Adriano’s which has steadily accrued cult status in downtown Bern over the past 9 years. Adrian taps his own beer and serves readymade hot panini. His freshly roasted coffee, quickly labeled ‘Best in Town’— gets requested by bars from Tel Aviv to Berlin. He’s appeared on TV, radio and in magazines sharing his views and opinions on coffee, the food industry and food related politics. You can pay a courtesy call @ www.adrianos.ch