Across from the railway station in Lausanne is a rising cobbled street. It leads to a busy road in the heart of the lakeside city. Located in an alleyway across from a nondescript church is the august establishment known as Café Roman.
We looked around and wondered where we could sit. A sign above the kitchen celebrated the year 1951.
Immediately we were transported into Switzerland’s past, when the country was still clinging to its culture, its traditions and its unique forms of language – Swiss-French along its western border with France, Swiss-German throughout almost two-thirds of its 26 cantons, Italian in the south and Romanche in the east.
Yet here, on the rising shore of Lake Geneva, Café Roman epitomised this distinctiveness and uniqueness.
The Swiss are a courteous, generally friendly people with a strong sense of identity, an even stronger sense of belonging rooted in place, especially in the mountains.
A thin, gaunt woman dressed in a white apron and black dress, money belt hung loosely around her slight waist, asked us for patience. We waited. We were standing close to the kitchen, while waitresses darted in and out.
Meanwhile the waitress who had told us to be patient began dragging a smallish square table to an area between similar sized tables and several oblong tables joined together. She motioned for us to follow her.
In a flash she whipped out a white table cloth, produced cutlery from somewhere, chairs from somewhere else and told us to sit while she bought the menu cards. A badge on her waitress’ uniform told us she was Virginia.
We thanked her and ordered fondue. It was the reason we had come, ‘the best fondue in Lausanne is in the Café Roman,’ we were told.
Then we heard an interesting story. This very Swiss dish apparently originated across the lake in Haute Savoie.
- 1 large farmhouse loaf, cut into cubes
- 400 g Beaufort
- 400 g Emmental
- 375 ml dry white wine
- 1 garlic clove, halved
- Nutmeg, large pinch
- Black pepper, large pinch
Rub the inside of the fondue pot with garlic. Grate the cheese and place it in the fondue pot. Cover with white wine. Warm over a low heat, stirring thoroughly with a wooden spoon to obtain a smooth, blended mixture. Add pepper and grated nutmeg. Let the fondue cook for five more minutes, stirring constantly. Place the fondue pot over its warmer and enjoy the fondue by dipping the pieces of bread using long forks.
The Savoy and Jura mountains that divide France from Switzerland are believed to be the birthplace of this comforting winter dish and there is ample evidence to suggest that fondue is a product of the dairy farmers who have tended cattle for centuries on high meadows.
The western Swiss cantons of Fribourg, Jura, Neuchâtel and Vaud all specialise in fondue but Appenzeller, Emmental, Gruyère, Raclette and Vacherin – the classic cheeses that form the basis for a classic Swiss fondue – only tell part of the story.
The Vacherin cheese of Fribourg is preferred by fondue aficionados because it adds full flavour to the mildness of the Emmental and the piquancy of the Gruyère – the combination for the classic Neuchâteloise.
Neuchâteloise, Moitié Moitié (half Gruyère, half Vacherin) and the fondue served in Salvan restaurants and along the valley canton are among the most popular with Swiss people.
But if you want to know which cheeses go into which fondues served in the Alps you will have to ask.
It is in these mountains that fondue makes its reputation, as chefs compete with each other to produce the ‘perfect’ fondue.
And they are not going to give away their trade secrets.
Of course the popularity of this amazing cheese dish may also have something to do with the tradition that demands punishment when a diner loses their bread in the fondue pot.
A man must buy a bottle of wine or a round of drinks.
A woman must kiss all the men in the company.
Ideally fondue should be made in a caquelon, heavy-bottomed saucepans that come in various sizes, and served on a stand over a burner to keep the mixture in a semi-liquid state.
- 2 Baquettes, cut into cubes
- 400 g Gruyere, grated
- 400 g Vacherin Fribourgeois, grated
- 300 ml dry white wine
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- 15 g cornstarch, dissolved in 20 ml kirsch
- 5 g white pepper
- 4 fondue forks
Rub garlic around the caquelon, add the cheese followed by the wine and cornstarch mixture. Melt gradually over low heat, stirring continuously with a wooden spatula. Finish with the pepper.
The classic fondue in Switzerland.
- 800 g Emmental, Gruyère, Vacherin Fribourgeois, grated
- 240 ml kirsch
- 20 g cornstarch, dissolved in 35 ml white wine and 1 tsp lemon juice
- 1 clove garlic, halved
- Nutmeg, grated
- White bread, cubed
Rub garlic around the caquelon, add the cheese followed by the kirsch and cornstarch mixture. Melt gradually over low heat, stirring continuously with a wooden spatula. Finish with the pepper.