I’m not sure how, but fondue passed me by in the 70s. My folks had all the other trendy appliances of the day; crock pots, electric frying pans, but the communal dining experience of dipping bits of food into cheese, oil or chocolate never happened in our house. When Greg arrived on my doorstep in 1994 he came with a fondue set, a leftover wedding present from his first marriage. It sat on a shelf in a closet until we sold it at a yard sale.
Sure, there was the occasional party where someone put out a fondue for guests to nibble at. These brief attempts at the process were frustrating – I’d end up losing more than I managed to eat. I assumed the tradition of losing your food in the pot and buying a round of drinks meant that the fondue was just an excuse to get drunk. Because booze and fondue go hand in hand.
A classic winter comfort food, this Swiss creation was invented to use up bits of stale cheese and bread during the long cold winters. A splash of wine, or maybe beer, thinned the melted cheese enough to dip bread and other items into it. The shared pot came from not only a lack of utensils, but a need to stay close to the warm fire, as well as a sense of community and sharing. And while the food cooked, more beer and wine was consumed all around.
During Toronto’s cold winters, food lovers can search out this traditional Swiss dish at the Me, Yü Und Fondüe Feastivül, taking place at both Bier Markt locations, until February 28th. Executive Chef Michael Cipollo has put together 8 fondue offerings, ranging in price from $15 to $48, all meant for sharing. Each fondue also has a suggested beer pairing to compliment the flavours of the dish.
While all the fondue dishes are designed to be shared between two people, our server informs us that some customers do come in and have one of the four cheese fondues as a main dish. We try the smoked Danish Fondue made with Danish Gouda cheese, cider cured bacon, cornichons, herb fritters, grape tomatoes and fresh baguette. This is a rich, creamy cheese fondue, served in the traditional earthenware dish called a caquelon. The smoky cheese and the bacon compliment each other nicely, and we’re delighted by the cornichons dipped in the cheese – we were expecting this to be awful, but the sharpness of the pickles cuts through the richness of the cheese. It’s quite brilliant. Also cutting through the richness of the cheese is the Palm Amber, a Belgian ale with a fruity bitterness that balances the smoke of the cheese nicely. This cheese fondue bucks tradition slightly by not including beer or wine in the mixture, but it doesn’t really need it. It’s rich and warming and I’m beginning to see the appeal.
Bier Markt offers two fondues as main dishes, one a surf and turf, the other all seafood. Both of these dishes are cooked with broth instead of the traditional hot oil. Chef Cipollo explains that by using a broth made from beer and flavourful elements such as celery, fennel, onion and tomatoes, it’s not only healthier but helps fondue newbies like myself ease into the dish and feel comfortable with the concept. He uses a Stiegl lager in the broth and the same beer, noted for its slightly spicy characteristics, works well with the fresh fish.
The dish includes black tiger shrimp, scallops and organic BC salmon. We’re advised to cook each piece between 1-1/2 and 4 minutes, and I begin to see where the conviviality comes in as everyone sits around waiting for their food to cook. The shrimp and scallops are quite firm and cook easily on the fondue forks. The salmon, on the other hand, breaks up slightly as it cooks and when we use a spoon to fish it out of the bottom of the fondue pot, we discover just how vibrant the broth is. The Fruits de Mer fondue comes with a side of rosti potatoes and grilled asparagus, and the salmon, along with the fondue broth spooned on top of this, is a natural pairing.
When we remark on the flavourful broth, Chef Cipollo tells us that some customers ask for bowls and a ladle in order to finish it all off. Also known as fondue Chinoise, the broth-based fondue is based on the premise of an Asian hot pot with bits of meat cooked in the broth, then when the meat is gone, an egg is cracked onto the remaining broth and slightly scrambled. The egg is not a standard offering on the Bier Markt’s menu and we don’t do this ourselves, but Cipollo says that many fondue diehards request this addition.
As a finale, we have the classic Belgian chocolate fondue, with bananas and strawberries, housemade macarons, ladyfingers and biscotti. Cipollo uses a Valrhona Manjari chocolate, a blend of beans from Madagascar, which, at 64% cacao, is neither too bitter or too sweet. The pairing for this is Delirium Tremens Ale, a sweet Belgian ale with three strains of yeast. I call this the “bubble gum beer” because of its sweet, gummy flavour, but it works well with the tart fruitiness of the chocolate, although a chocolate with a lesser cacao content might be overwhelmed by it. As a stout drinker, I’d probably have chosen to pair this with something that played more to the notes in the chocolate, but the Delirium Tremens in such a unique beer, it’s a fun pairing nevertheless.
After an afternoon of eating my way through a variety of fondue offerings, I’m still by no means an expert, but I’m feeling much more knowledgeable about this nifty Swiss tradition. Of course, there’s more to learn, as fondue has its own set of etiquette, and hundreds of different recipes.
The Me, Yü Und Fondüe Feastivül runs at both Bier Markt locations until February 28th. Three of the fondue options (two of the cheese fondues and the Belgian chocolate) also remain on the menu year-round.