Fondue: once it was a meal to satisfy starving peasants; now it’s haute cuisine—or at least some people think so.

The Melting Pot fondue chain, with its outrageous prices ($35-50 per person), makes it seem that way.

But I say otherwise. Fondue should be treated like any other peasant dish, such as ratatouille or root vegetables. It’s just a homey, delicious, cold-weather meal.

After all, that’s what it was meant to be.

Back in the 17th century, Alpine inhabitants of the Swiss Neuchâtel region needed a way to make stale cheese and bread, often the only available foods in the dead of winter, palatable. The solution: melt the cheese and dip in the bread (and add some wine for good measure).

This caught on quickly and spread to the French and Italian Alps, and then into the lowlands.

Now the traditional Swiss recipe is composed of Gruyere and Emmentaler cheeses, nutmeg, dry white wine, garlic and kirschwasser, a cherry liqueur.

As the dish spread, variations arose. And a sort of culture arose around fondue.

First, the dish became a bit of a game: If a woman lost the bread at the end of her skewer, she had to kiss the men at the table. If a man lost his bread, he had to buy drinks for everyone.

And hands-on meals are always fun, anyway. People love making their food (or having it made) as they eat it. Just look at the Benihana chain or those popular churrascaria joints.

But you don’t have to go to a restaurant for fondue—in fact you shouldn’t. Don’t splurge on a mediocre meal at the Melting Pot, where an average three to four-person meal costs much more than a fondue pot and all the necessary ingredients put together.

I don’t hate the Melting Pot’s cheese fondue. But they are inconsistent. The server makes the fondue at the table, and each has his or her own variation, as the servers don’t use set measurements.

For instance on my last visit—the one after which I decided to never return—my server had quite the affinity for nutmeg. I could barely taste the cheese.

And then I looked at the bill and wondered why I spent so much money when I could have made the dish better myself for about $20.

It’s simple to make, provided you watch the cheese to make sure it melts properly.

Try to make it on an especially cold night, and pair it with warm drinks. (Traditionally fondue is paired with black tea because the Swiss thought cold drinks and fondue resulted in indigestion.) However, my parents like to pair it with the wine they used in the actual fondue.

Recipe

Serves 4

Prep time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: 10 minutes

Ingredients

1 garlic clove

2/3 cup dry white wine

squeeze of lemon juice

2 cups grated Gruyere cheese

2 cups grated Emmentaler cheese

1 Tbsp cornstarch

2 Tbsp kirschwasser

pinch of salt

¼ tsp paprika

¼ tsp nutmeg

Pears, sliced

Bread, cubed

It’s easiest to start the fondue on the stove, and then transfer the pot to its stand with the small burner (usually an alcohol or gel burner). And go for the best-quality cheese you can find. Whole Foods usually has well-aged Gruyere. This dish is almost entirely cheese, so, believe me, good-quality cheese is worth the extra cost.

Mince the garlic clove, and then rub it around the fondue pot. Add the wine and lemon juice. Place over the kitchen stove under low heat. Gradually add the cheeses and stir until completely melted.

When the cheese starts to bubble, add in the kirschwasser and cornstarch and stir for 2-3 minutes. Add in the remaining ingredients (as always, to taste, but I use these measurements). Transfer fondue pot carefully to the fondue burner and serve with freshly sliced pears and cubes of French bread.

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