I’d made fondue before but this was back in the days when I was under the illusion that all British cheese was good for was toast topping and jacket potatoes, so I’d used traditional Swiss cheeses such as Emmental and Gruyère. Having garnered a reputation as the local ‘mad cheese woman’, I’d been promising some neighbours a fondue knees-up for a while. Once the date was sealed, I decided to try and create a menu from British cheeses, now that I know what a great variety of styles there are available. So, I set off for Borough Market on a cheese-quest (ensuring that I had only a limited amount of cash and no card in my wallet so I didn’t get the Borough Market red mist and end up spending £120 on partridges, quinces and kangaroo salami).
I’d tried Bermondsey Hardpressed at a cheese tasting and it sounded perfect. Made by Bill Oglethorpe of Kappacasein under a South London railway arch, it’s an Alpine style cheese. Alas, I couldn’t find Bill’s stall and rumour had it that he wasn’t there on that day of the week. So I was wandering rather forlornly when I came across Alsop and Walker’s stall. Their Sussex Farmhouse cheese declared itself to be ‘ideal for raclettes and fondues’ and on nibbling tasted a bit like a nutty Gruyère so a couple of wedges of that went into my bag and I continued on my way. I haven’t been able to find out much about this cheese, other than it’s apparently ‘a very rare Dutch type cheese, only made by a few cheese makers in Holland and now in the UK’, which is all a bit intriguing.
I moseyed on through the market and was ‘sampling’ some expensive chocolate near the cathedral when my nose twitched and I turned around to – hurrah! – find the Kappacasein stall (they sell raclettes from the stall which smell of melted cheese heaven). Bill let me try three different Bermondsey Hardpresseds, all of different maturity and I chose the youngest, at just six months. Alpine cheeses are traditionally shaped by both environment and necessity. Cows would be taken high into the mountains to graze during the summer months when pastures were lush, accompanied by one or two herders. Cheeses were made in big durable wheels to make them easier to transport back down the mountains and also because the cheeses needed to feed the family all winter when milk was scarce and so large, dry cheeses would last longer. One chunk of Hardpressed in the bag. One fondue sorted.
The second planned fondue was based on Cheddar and Cider and so I went to Neal’s Yard Dairy because they always have a great selection of Cheddars and also let you eat a large amount before kicking you out. (I’ve also noticed that the cheesemongers there also have a taste of whatever you’re tasting and I have no idea how they all stay so slim; perhaps there’s a giant hamster wheel in the staff room where they have to run it all off before they can clock off). Anyway, true to form, they let me snaffle several Cheddars and this time round I plumped for Westcombe Cheddar, which I hadn’t tried before. Westcombe Dairy is based down in Somerset. The farm’s been making Cheddar since the late nineteenth century and these days uses unpasteurised milk and time-honoured techniques such as cheddaring the curds by hand. So that was it; my hat-trick of great British cheeses was in the bag. And here they are:
The word fondue comes from the French fondre, meaning ‘to melt’ or ‘to blend’. It’s believed that the dish has its origins in the isolated villages of Alpine regions, where food was scarce in the harsh winter months; bread became stale and cheese became hard but people worked out that if they melted the cheese with wine, herbs and other flavourings and dipped the bread into it, it wasn’t half bad. Fondue parties were very popular in the 1960s and 1970s in Britain but then went out of fashion and acquired a bit of a pampas-grass-and-car-keys-in-the-fruit-bowl reputation, if you know what I mean (if you don’t, ask your Mum, not that I’m suggesting she went in for any of that). Anyway, moving swiftly on, here are my two British cheese fondue recipes…
But first, I accidentally did buy a huge amount of salami and also some olives. Yummm:
Swiss-esque Fondue Ingredients
1 garlic clove, halved
150ml dry white wine
1 tsp lemon juice
300g Bermondsey Hard Pressed Cheese, grated
300g Sussex Farmhouse Cheese, grated
1 tbsp cornflour
3 tbsps Kirsch
Pinches of pepper, ground nutmeg and smoked paprika to season
Somerset Cheddar and Cider Fondue Ingredients
1 garlic clove, halved
200ml dry cider
350g Westcombe Cheddar, grated
1 tbsp cornflour
Pinch of dry mustard powder
2 tbsp brandy or calvados
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Pinch of salt and pepper
Both fondues were made in essentially the same way. First, rub the inside of your fondue pot with the cut garlic then add your wine or cider, plus lemon juice if the recipe calls for it. Heat it gently and then start to add your cheese. There will be a lot of cheese.
Stir the cheese in, in a figure of eight motion, until the cheese has melted. Blend the cornflour with the Kirsch or with the brandy, mustard powder and Worcestershire Sauce. When the cheese is bubbling, add it to the fondue and continue to cook and stir for a couple more minutes. Season to taste.
Now comes the fun bit (well, not as much fun as the car-keys-in-the-fruit-bowl-bit obviously, arf!) Choose your dipping weapons of choice. Cubed bread is always great and we had some rosemary focaccia that went down a treat. Some vegetables are good too, to make you vaguely feel you’re getting your five-a-day in the face of a cheese-lake. The definite winners of the evening were the gherkins:
Let the dipping commence!
There are lots of traditions around fondue, for instance if a woman drops a bread cube into the fondue she has to kiss all the men and if a man drops a bread cube, he has to buy a bottle of wine for each guest. When you have snaffled all the cheese, you may be left with a crusty layer at the bottom, thus:
To me, this tastes like a manky old bit of cheese on toast but this is the prized la religieuse, which means ‘the Nun’. There are several theories about why it’s called The Nun; it could be that it supposedly resembles the caps that nuns used to wear or because nuns used to wear several layers of clothing called crusts (I’m not making this up). Anyway, everyone’s meant to fight over it but you’re welcome to it at my gaff.
So, did the British cheeses cut the mustard? Well, both fondues were delicious and I think as long as you used a good quality cheese, you would get great results. There are lots of other cheeses I’d love to try and fondue, current list-toppers being Lincolnshire Poacher, Teifi, Mayfield and St Gall, as well as a touch of a washed rind like Ardrahan. Have you ever fondued with a native cheese? What would you fancy?
I certainly think this qualifies as a comfort food and so I’m linking it up with this month’s Cheese, Please! Challenge.