A recent convert to its charms, Alex Rushmer embarks on a love affair with fondue in the Swiss Alps
Earlier this summer I experienced my first ever fondue. It’s not that I’ve actively avoided it for the first three and a half decades of my life, more that the opportunity never presented itself which, given my adoration of the constituent elements, is very strange. A cheese toastie with a punchy acidic counterpoint (chutney or pickles) is a thing of simple and delicious beauty and many a late night hunger has been assuaged by this most magnificent snack. A fondue contains the same elements but in a manner that not only includes wine but is also acceptable as a sociable (and even refined) meal option, not just a morsel to be consumed in the semi-darkness.
However, as I am currently ensconced in the friendly bosom of the Swiss Alps and therefore in the spiritual home of fondue, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to indulge in this particular culinary icon and I was advised of just the place to do so.
Restaurant Chez Dany sits alone, high in the hills above Verbier town centre, at an altitude of about 1700m. At night it is visible from the valley below, a single point of light on an otherwise black mountainside. They specialise in classic Swiss dishes including rosti and cured meats but the fondue was the real reason for my visit. As well as the traditional cheese there is the option of a fondue with wild girolle mushrooms, and even one with white truffles from just over the border in the northern Italian province of Alba; but as a first timer I felt there was no need for embellishment.
"I was well and truly stuffed and well and truly happy"
Alongside a small burner and pot of molten, near-boiling cheese, came a basket of bread and a jar of pickled gherkins and tiny silverskin onions for those of us sat around the fondue to share. Of course, the food itself was delicious, that was no surprise, but what really made the experience truly enjoyable was the friendly and communal nature of the meal. I was breaking bread with people I had only just met but the usual boundaries of early meetings were noticeably absent. I dare say this was aided by a few glasses of Fendant, the local wine, and a few more of Abricotine, a fiery eau de vie made from apricots grown in the Valais canton, which also acts as a much needed digestif after the heavy onslaught of melted cheese, bread and pickles.
The crowning glory of the meal came when I was advised to use a fondue fork to chisel off the crispy layer of caramelised cheese that had welded itself to the bottom of the pot. Wonderfully textured and pleasingly bitter, it reminded me of the dribbles of melted cheese that stick to the hot plates on the Breville but remain attached to the outside of a toastie. By the time I ate that final crunchy morsel I was well and truly stuffed and well and truly happy, optimistic that the booze and pickles would aid the digestion of what felt like an increasingly leaden weight in my belly. I’m not entirely sure that was the case, but I do know that I slept very well indeed.