I don’t know when we started it, but every year my daughter Mackenzie and I go out for fondue for Mother’s Day. Not only is it totally indulgent but it typically sparks some great girl talk and general silliness.
We’ve been heading to the Melting Pot in Bellevue for years. It’s a chain, and it’s pricey, but it’s nice for a special occasion. There are better fondue restaurants in the States for sure, but it’s a tradition now, and my daughter is all about traditions for some reason. It’s not better than my fondue by a long shot, but I don’t make chocolate fondue, and that’s the sales catch for my teenage daughter.
Last night was an absolute treat. We started with salads, had the Alpine Swiss fondue with bread, green apples, raw veggies and cured meats, and then we tried the Bananas Fosters white chocolate fondue. Definitely on the sweet side, it was mixed with dulce de leche, caramelized bananas and sprinkled tableside with cinnamon which caused an explosion of neon orange sparks. So good to dip fresh strawberries into and coat with that warm, cinnamon-white chocolate sweetness.
I know why I do this every year, and I used to make my own every year on New Year’s Eve. It brings back one of my life’s fondest food memories.
When I was 22 and backpacking through Europe, my best friend Heather and I made our way to Switzerland. I was often referencing Rick Steve’s “Europe Through the Back Door” that trip. The book was dog-eared and torn at this point; there were so many incredible, out of the way, virtually unknown places to visit throughout Europe. And we went to many of them.
Hitchhiking was an option way back in the old days, so we hitched a ride in the French Swiss Alps from a young, blonde French guy driving a red sports car. We quickly zigzagged through the mountain passes until we reached a remote dirt road. He dropped us off and we were left to stare down this narrow passage through rolling green hills dotted with hundreds of cows.
Heather and I started walking. According to the book, Rick had promised a restaurant on this “street” where we could bunk in the attic for $10 a night. We trekked on with our heavy backpacks weighing us down as curious cows surrounded us, their cowbells hollowly echoing in the alpine breezes.
After what seemed like about a mile, we finally spotted the small restaurant. I communicated with the owner our intentions in my lousy French, and he agreed to let us stay.
The restaurant itself was small, and warm, with a huge black cauldron hanging in the fireplace for reasons unknown. We settled in for dinner – fondue, of course. They made their own cheese here from their own cows, and some local white wine to sip alongside.
But it was this fondue that I will never forget. It wasn’t thick cheese which clung to the ciabatta-like bread resulting in long pulled strings of cheese you see glorified in America’s marketing materials. It was almost more like a thick broth, so saturated with dry white wine, and a clinginess of the salty, nutty gruyere. The light and airy bread cubes thirstily absorbed the liquid making it soft and permeated, providing the kind of eye-rolling experience where you just have to pause and say “My God. So THIS is fondue.”
Needless to say, we extended our trip, and likely our welcome at this little restaurant nestled in foothills of the French Swiss Alps. The attic….well, I think there were beds in it? I don’t quiet remember actually. I do remember that there weren’t any lights. Every night we were plunged into darkness, listening to the wind howling down from the mountain peaks and into the valley, while the cowbells echoed hauntingly in the distance. Heather, obsessed with vampires at the time, filled the darkness with her with anxious, violent paranoias.
The days that week in June were filled with hiking through the rolling hillsides and admiring the assorted rainbow of wildflowers. There were also a few “birdbaths” in the icy streams since our little restaurant did not have a shower. But the evenings were spent sipping wine, playing cards, and being so truly grateful to enjoy that food of the Swiss Gods.
But our need for a shower began to outweigh our love of fondue. So we pressed on. I spent some time trying out fondue recipes. I came across this one long ago from Bon Appetit magazine in 2004, which I really enjoy. It calls for rehydrated porcini mushrooms, which I skip most of the time. But it captures that liquid, rich quality that I had, somewhere in Switzerland, at an unknown restaurant, that week in June.