Ten years ago, desperate to find an affordable holiday rental, I eyed a last-minute opening on the Wengen tourism site for a rustic chalet with wood-burning stove and stunning view. I dusted off my rusty German, called the owner and then packed up the kids and dog for the Bernese Alps.
At 1,300 meters, Wengen is my favourite resort. Despite numerous visits, I have always loved riding the slow, cog-wheeled mountain train to this magical car-free village. A certain shared awe emanates from those experiencing the Alps for the first time and those, like me, yet again, as the snow-capped peaks broaden and expand. Laden with boots, skis and packs, the passengers lumber off, clamouring for a look at the station map. I try to find our chalet. My eyes finally settle on a small dot far off to the right, on the edge. Booking a chalet before Google Maps meant that we had a nearly hour hike along a steep wooded lane hemmed in by snowy fields. The chalet was all that was promised, but so isolated that I had visions of being snowed in until spring.
But we did venture out, including a bid to enjoy the inevitable fondue in one of Wengen’s traditional restaurants. We dutifully took our place at the wooden table. Responding to the guttural “Grüessech” of the waitress, I asked with expectation which cheeses they used. She adamantly ignored me, so I repeated the question, innocent of the fact that I had just breached some irrefutable rule of Swiss fondue decorum. Such information, she declared, could not be revealed. My husband asked to see the owner. A barrel of a woman, she stormed in, barking angrily that she would never reveal her secret. If we didn’t like it, we could leave. This we did, despite the three-kilometre trek home in sub-degree temperatures, and then nothing memorable to eat.
The reason for our principled stand? I can’t stand fondue with Emmental cheese. Stringy, gluey and bland with the taste augmented by lashings of cherry liquor: this is my memory of all too many restaurant fondues. I was determined to avoid the same in Wengen. The combination of cheeses that go into a fondue are as varied as the local dialects. Gruyère, Cantal, Appenzeller, and Munster are just some of the mixtures I have tried and invariably disliked. They are either too pungent or too staid. I wondered whether I would ever find the right tanginess and creaminess of a perfect fondue.
But then I stumbled onto a small inn near Gruyère. The owners wouldn’t disclose the exact portions, but they did tell me the secret to the “perfect fondue”, notably a blend of salty Gruyère and milky Vacherin. And no Emmental.
- 3 garlic cloves
- ½ bottle of Fendant wine
- 500 grams of aged, salty Gruyère (grated)
- 500 grams of Vacherin Fribourgeoise (grated)
- 6 cl of cherry liquor (kirsch)
- 1 tbsp corn starch(maizena)
Chop the cloves of garlic finely and place in a dry fondue pan over medium heat. When the garlic starts to sizzle, add the white wine. When the wine starts to bubble, add the grated cheeses. Stir in figure of eight circles until melted. In the meantime, stir the corn starch into the cherry liquor until dissolved. Pour into fondue until the cheese is homogenous and creamy. Place on burner and enjoy!
Amelia Alexander is a Lake Geneva-based food writer.