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Cheese fondue, the Swiss communal dish of bread dipped in a pot of hot melted cheese, is the ideal antidote to the frosty cold dark winter. Its mere heat, rich taste, and pungent aroma warm up the body, comfort the soul, and awaken the palate. In addition, it's a shared meal that represents the very essence of conviviality. Shared with friends and family members, cheese fondue is the perfect remedy to fight off the "winter blues." And, one of the most exciting parts about making fondue is the creative process involved in selecting the cheeses.
Although most cheese fondue recipes tend to call for Swiss cheeses such as Emmentaler and Gruyère, there's no reason why Americans cannot choose stateside alternatives. In fact, in Switzerland, nearly every canton makes fondue using locally sourced cheeses. So what's an American cook to do when trying to use domestic cheeses in his or her fondue? In order to find out, we talked to two prominent U.S. chefs who specialize in melted cheeses: Ralf Kuettel from New York's Trestle on Tenth and Terrance Brennan, who runs restaurants such as New York's Artisanal and Picholine and Bellevue's Artisanal Brasserie and The Artisanal Table Pizzeria Enoteca, both just outside of Seattle.
"I grew up with Tilsiter or Apenzeller fondue," says the Swiss-born-and-raised Kuettel. When it comes to thinking "local" on the East Cost of the United States, however, Kuettel suggests two raw cow's milk cheeses from Consider Bardwell Farm in West Pawlet, VT. "Mix half Pawlet and Rupert together and you'll get some pretty intense and creamy fondue," recommends Kuettel. The combination of the creamy buttery Pawlett, aged for four to six months, with the complex nuttiness of Rupert, an alpine-style cheese similar to Gruyère, creates a succulent and piquant fondue.
Brennan runs restaurants on both the East and West coasts, and so recommends both Tarentaise from Thistle Hill Farm in North Pomfret, VT, and Seastack from Mt. Townsend Creamery in Port Townsend, WA. "For the Northeast restaurants, I would choose Tarentaise because of its grassy, nutty, and buttery flavor," says Brennan. Tarentaise, like Rupert, is a firm alpine-style cheese that has a floral and fruity aroma that when melted turns into an exquisite nutty earthy fragrance.
Distinct from Brennan's East Coast choice, Seastack has a creamy consistency, similar to Pawlet, and a salty vegetal tang – no surprise, considering that the cheese is covered in sea salt and vegetable ash. "Seastack has a silky texture and a rich tart taste," says Brennan. But, preferences aside, Brennan also believes you can make fondue out of any cheese "Your only limitation is your creativity," he says. "Think about flavors that you like and that go well together, like Gouda and Stout and Stilton and Sauternes." In other words, there is not a limited amount of cheeses or type of cheese that can be used in a fondue.
Local cheeses aside, people can get more creative (and less local) when picking out the types of liquor (kirsch, beer or white wine) to add to the fondue. Kuettel always uses white wine as a base and then adds some kirsch at the end. Brennan also uses white wine. "It has just the right amount of acid content," says Brennan, "but there are also times when we use beer, like in our Gouda and Stout fondue."
Cheese fondue is not only a delicious warm aromatic alternative to short dark gray cold winter days, but it's also an opportunity to get creative in the kitchen. This inventiveness can be seen in the fact that while Kuettel and Brennan both have restaurants in NYC, they prefer different local cheeses in their fondue. For those living in the Midwest, we recommend Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese Co. or Lancaster Duet from Farmstead First. And, for those living down south, we suggest Meadow Creek Farm's Grayson. (In short, they're all good melting cheeses.)
So, the next time you're selecting your fromage for fondue, remember that there's no reason not to use locally sourced cheeses.