How did fondue become the Swiss national dish?

Jayan Luharia - Dec. 17, 2022 - 3 min read - #Culture

I have vivid memory of my first encounter with the slimy Swiss delicacy of fondue - it was a warm summer evening in the heart of Geneva's Old Town, and my family entered the renowned Les Armures, not knowing yet that we were set for a one-of-a-kind culinary experience. I remember being served the molten cheese concoction and eagerly dunking chunks of bread into the saucy mixture. In fact, I became overwhelmed by the rich flavours of the Gruyère and the Vacherin, and uncontrollably devoured the entire pot. Whether I knew it or not, I had experienced the magic of fondue that day - a dish loved immensely by the Swiss, but also a globally celebrated dish. Therefore, I shall continue with the intent of unpacking how fondue rose from its humble beginnings and morphed into the Swiss national dish.

Dishes of melted cheese were mentioned in medieval texts as early as 1291. Swiss melted cheese, in its earliest form, was a dish consumed by peasants in the mountainous Alpine regions of Switzerland and France. However, the exact inception of fondue is harder to place, and its precise origins have often been rumoured to be many a thing, yet a frequent suggestion is that it was birthed by peasants in the Swiss mountains who would use up leftover bread and cheese in colder months when any fresh produce was unavailable. Despite its humble origins, fondue has greatly grown in popularity. In 2022, however, Swiss fondue in French-speaking Switzerland will set you back a whopping 30 Swiss Francs on average, which is approximately £26 for each pot. This radical spurt in popularity is due to a few interconnected factors, but for chronology's sake, we will begin with the date of 1875, which was the date of when the first "cheese and wine" fondue was published. It was a dish popularised in the lowland French-speaking cantons of Switzerland, utilising rich cheeses such as Gruyère, a valuable export item, and thus was commonly eaten by town-dwellers.

Fast forward to 1914. The Swiss Cheese Union was founded in this year, amidst the onset of the First World War, with the task of ensuring a basic supply of cheese. In the inter-war period that followed, the Union focused on organising the export of fondue. This was the time in which the Swiss Cheese Union successfully pushed to have fondue named the Swiss national dish. Through a marketing campaign with the slogan "fondue creates a good mood", the consumption of the dish was bolstered and the dish was cemented as the Swiss speciality that it is today. Fondue sets were sent out to the military and to popular events, and exports began to increase. All in all, the Swiss Cheese Union had successfully embedded fondue into the Swiss lifestyle, and thus it has remained the Swiss staple ever since.

However, the growth of fondue didn't reach closure there. Journalist David Sax writes: "it is no coincidence that the fondue trend rose in concert with the budding sexual revolution in North America." This clearly refers to the fact that a significant element contributing to fondue's popularity was the social aspect of the meal. After all, fondue, in essence, inspires conversation, warmth and intimacy. Sax also writes that "the Trudeau Corporation sold a million fondue sets in Canada and the US between 1996 and 2001, a growth of a tenfold from the years prior." As of today, fondue has become a household name, and with the widespread accessibility of fondue sets, it has also become a perfectly plausible household dish. At present, fondue sets, (cast iron or stainless steel pots with a burner underneath), have become a marketable new addition to a long line of kitchenware, ranging in prices from £30 to £150. Fondue is simply one of myriads of melted cheese dishes that have reached incredible levels of success, with the other notable Swiss option being raclette - a melted cheese dish scraped over an assortment of accompaniments, which has now found its way to becoming the Swiss McDonalds' specialty, in the form of the McRaclette.

To conclude, Switzerland's iconic figurehead dish has a hazy and alluring history. A history of a rather simplistic combination of cheese and wine, which has become deeply engraved, not only in the Swiss identity, but the world's gallery of indispensable dishes also.