Fondue — the French word for “melted” — was popularized in Switzerland in the 1930s as a way to increase cheese consumption and has since become synonymous with Swiss cuisine. Given its communal nature and relatively quick prep time, the dish is a popular holiday tradition for many.
Chef Patrick Garland’s mother was of the mind that “cheese could hide a multitude of sins.” Fair to say that Garland’s mum and I are on the same page! Though her version of cheese fondue — bright orange with Wonder Bread for dipping — bears little resemblance to the fondue served at Absinthe, her son’s restaurant, Garland might have his mother to thank for introducing him to the dish.
It was while completing his apprenticeship at a Swiss restaurant that Garland encountered traditional cheese fondue (and apparently insulted the chef when he told him it looked nothing like the fondue of his childhood). So a few years ago, when Garland was looking to do something a little different to intrigue diners at his Hintonburg restaurant on Monday nights, normally a slow night in the industry, he went back to his formative kitchen experiences and began offering fondue, with Fondue Neuchâteloise (cheese fondue), Fondue Bourguignonne (meat fondue), and chocolate fondue.
The fondue season at Absinthe starts just after Thanksgiving and lasts until early spring. There’s a good mix of regulars and folks who stumble upon the night that celebrates melted cheese; one woman hasn’t missed a Monday.
Like the rest of Garland’s menu, there’s a nod to tradition with an Absinthe twist. The Fondue Neuchâteloise “Absinthe style” features Québécois cheeses instead of the Swiss equivalents — traditional, but featuring local products at the same time. In fact, all the cheeses used in Absinthe fondues are sourced from Suzanne Lavoie. “What she doesn’t know about cheese in Quebec isn’t worth knowing” is how Garland sees it.
Lavoie co-owns Mariposa Farm in Plantagenet, Ontario, with her husband, Ian Walker. The couple has been supplying restaurants in the capital region with products from their farm for nearly 25 years. Fifteen years ago, they decided to offer Quebec cheeses to their clients. Lavoie visited most of the cheesemakers in the province and every year selects various cheeses to be part of a list provided to their clients. “I guess you could call me a cheesemonger,” she says.
Describing cheese as her passion, Lavoie has gone beyond the mongering and now makes her own cheese, butter, and yogourt on the farm (though the dairy products are only for her and her family’s consumption; she is not legally allowed to sell them). Last year she participated in the inaugural Canadian Amateur Cheesemaking contest and claimed first prize with her blue cheese. When Garland approached her for help making his fondue, Lavoie researched and consulted, returning to him with a combination of three cheeses: a mild, smooth cheese that makes the fondue stringy and gooey; a slightly sweet cheese; and one that is a little more pungent. This combination, along with some wine and seasoning, is what makes Garland’s fondue “magical” in Lavoie’s books.
On the other side of the river, Meule et Caquelon (French for “Cheese Wheel and Fondue Pot”) has gone all in for the Swiss theme, with servers dressed in dirndls and lederhosen. Inspired to open a restaurant with a “unique concept” 22 years ago in the northern Quebec town of Rouyn-Noranda, Robert Ataman moved the restaurant south to Gatineau in 2002. The “Bistro des Alpes” specializes in fondue as well as raclette, which is the name of both the Swiss cheese and the traditional dish. The restaurant is now run by his son, but Ataman likes to keep an eye on things and checks in on guests throughout their meals, making sure that la religieuse (the nun), the crispy layer of cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot, is enjoyed by a lucky diner. Ataman estimates that when things are busy, they go through approximately 60 kilos of Québécois cheese each week.
Not of Swiss descent himself, Ataman was drawn to Swiss cuisine by the participatory and inclusive nature of fondue and raclette. Diners are provided with the equipment they need to grill their own meats, heat their fondue, or scrape their own raclette at the table. The meals are relaxed, as people eat only as fast as they are cooking and there is no worrying about dishes getting cold. Ataman brags that the best chefs are cooking in his family restaurant — the guests.
While the cost of the equipment can be prohibitive and can make it tricky for folks to make their own fondue at home, Ataman says the beauty of trying your hand at fondue is that there are no limits. Anything goes when it comes to your home pairings (there are only fondos, no fondon’ts, if you will). You can try Garland’s favourites for dipping in cheese: broccoli, sourdough, pears, and apples. Since fondue is generally eaten in a season when there is no sun — and “you may have borderline scurvy,” jokes Garland — the Absinthe approach to ensure that vegetables are plentiful seems logical.
Whatever your fondue favourites, Garland reckons that everyone loves fondue: “It’s convivial, fun to eat, and retro in all the cool ways.” So whether you’re looking to indulge après-ski or after shovelling, you know what to do: fondue.
Katie Shapiro is a writer and photographer enamoured with all things local