The peculiarities of eating fondue in Switzerland

Earlier this month, when we took a trip to Switzerland with our friends Beth and Will, they had one special request: fondue for dinner. (Side note: Fondue is now known as a Swiss specialty, but its popularity can actually be traced to the 1970s marketing efforts of the Swiss Cheese Union, a shadowy cartel like OPEC but for cheese. For the whole entertaining history, check out this NPR segment.) We were all tired from a long day of exploring so when the first restaurant we tried had no space, we glanced across the street, saw a small, otherwise unremarkable restaurant advertising fondue, and decided it would do. We actually felt pretty good about the authenticity of our forthcoming meal when we realized that the handful of other patrons in the restaurant seemed to be regulars—they were eating quietly, or chatting with the owner at the bar, all in French. Things were looking good.

I think we first realized we were in over our heads when the owner handed us menus that didn’t include fondue. Colin inquired as to whether he was serving any that night, and he gave us a wary look. “Oui,” he said in French, “But it stinks up the restaurant so you have to eat at a table in the back.” He pointed to a table in an alcove next to the kitchen and said it was ours if we wanted it. (He was clearly not a member of the cheese cartel.)

We were mildly embarrassed, but darn it if we hadn’t come specifically for fondue, so we gathered our things and walked to the partially hidden table. No sooner had we sat down than the owner asked if we wanted some wine. Colin asked for a drink menu.

The owner shook his head. Non, he explained, there are only two things you could possibly drink with fondue. Really you should only drink white wine, but if you absolutely must have something else, hot tea might be appropriate.

Because he was speaking in French, Colin and I weren’t sure how much of the conversation Beth and Will were following, but it was immediately clear to all of us that we were not in charge of the meal. The owner seemed friendly enough, but it was obvious that – at least in his eyes – there was exactly one correct way to serve fondue, and he would not deviate for any reason. Colin politely told the owner that we would take some white wine, thank you very much.

We all laughed about the situation, and soon enough the owner brought us the wine and fondue and wished us bon appétit. Luckily we liked both. Everything was going along just fine until Beth made a noise.

Afterwards, the four of us debated what had happened. Beth doesn’t remember saying anything, but I maintain that she exclaimed, “Eau!” or maybe it was just “Oh!” In any case, in that moment, I believed with 100 percent certainty that Beth wanted a glass of water. I knew the owner thought water would be problematic with fondue, but Beth is a good friend and if she was thirsty, I was going to get her a drink. I flagged down the owner and asked if we could have un carafe d’eau, s’il vous plait.

His answer had not changed.

Non, we could not have water. Good-natured but insistent as ever, he regaled me with tales of how water will turn the melted cheese into a giant ball in your stomach, and you will not feel well, so you really must not drink water when eating fondue. Non, c’est pas possible. He would not let me drink water.

I was horribly embarrassed and just kept repeating that trusty French phrase “d’accord!,” which means roughly “Okay, I understand!” I can’t say I really understood the science behind his cheese-ball theory, but I did understand that I wouldn’t be getting Beth any water.

A minute later he reappeared with a mug of hot tea and handed it to me. I had three immediate thoughts:

  1. I wasn’t actually thirsty; I had been asking for Beth, whom I now knew hadn’t actually been thirsty either.
  2. I can’t drink black tea in the evenings or I won’t sleep.
  3. I was definitely going to drink it anyway.

I was more or less okay with the owner assuming we were dumb as doornails, but I was far too proud to have him think me rude, so over the course of the next hour I drank every last drop.

After that, the only other excitement came when we tried to order dessert. Beth had seen another table eating ice cream, but when the owner relayed the dessert options to us, he presented two, neither of which was ice cream. Still, to be on the safe side, and since our French comprehension is not always parfait, we ordered one of each.

The good news is that our French must be improving because we did, in fact, not get ice cream; we got creme brûlée and flan. Although I suppose it’s possible that the restaurant had simply run out of ice cream, it seems more likely that ice cream is not suitable for consumption with fondue. I couldn’t tell you why, though; for that, you’ll need to ask a kindly gentleman running a small restaurant in Lausanne.

Anyway, after all that dessert, I was pretty thirsty but I had learned my lesson. I waited until we had paid the bill, thanked the owner for the meal, and walked safely out of sight of the restaurant, and then I drained the small water bottle I carry in my purse. And you know what? I did feel pretty full afterwards. Maybe it was that I ate too much fondue, maybe it was the two desserts we shared, or maybe – just maybe – it was the waterlogged cheese ball in my stomach.

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Pre-cheese ball.

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