New Expatica blogger Geneve Girl tells you everything you need to know about this Swiss tradition in Geneva, where cheese is king.
If I had to sum up life in Geneva in five words, I would say: cheese on cheese on cheese. Cheese is the lifeblood of this town, featuring prominently in just about every meal one has. The cheese section at even the pokiest of supermarkets is roughly the size of your average two-bedroom home. And with good reason – cheese is one of Switzerland’s primary exports,** with Swiss cheesemakers exporting around 62,000 tonnes of the stuff per year. Swiss people consume the largest amount of cheese in the world, a whopping 21.4kg per person.***
That might sound like a lot, but after you eat your first fondue and you’re lying in a semi-conscious state afterwards, you realise that eating multiple kilograms of cheese in one sitting is not actually such a pipe dream. I don’t know whether it’s because the wine in the recipe impedes your stomach’s ability to tell you when it’s about to overflow, or whether the promise of picking burnt cheese off the bottom of the pot (oh yes, it’s the best bit) motivates you to push on, but no matter how big your pot of fondue, no matter how many times you say, as the waiter places it in front of you, “Oh my gosh, look at the size of that. I’ll never finish it.”, you will always finish it. And almost always hate yourself afterwards.
Here is the good news – it’s not your fault. Fondue’s place of pride as the national dish is actually due to a Swiss conspiracy**** to increase cheese consumption in the inter-war years. The Swiss Cheese Union – yep, it exists – used fondue to promote Swiss unity, a form of “spiritual defence” in those difficult times. Their campaign continued up until the 80s, based on slogans like “Fondue is good and creates a good mood.” (advertising genius). Who can say no to that?
The moral of the story: don’t blame yourself if you develop a fondue addiction when you move to Geneva. Blame the Swiss Cheese Union.
The rules of fondue:
1. Restrain yourself
When you order fondue at a restaurant in Geneva, the staff tend to bring out a basket of bread long before your cheese arrives (Swiss and French restaurants will provide never-ending baskets of bread the way American restaurants provide tap water). I know it’s hard not to nibble while you’re waiting for your meal but STAY AWAY FROM THE BREAD. Remember, you’re just about to eat a meal that is about 70% bread. You do not need more bread. It will only impede your ability to eat your weight in cheese.
2. Be aggressive
The key to being able to make your way through the whole pot of cheese is aggressive swirling – you’ve got to keep that baby moving, otherwise it all congeals in a great big lump and burns on the bottom, and that’s something that no one wants to see. Also, make sure you’re aggressively spearing that bread – losing a piece of bread in a vast cheesy whirlpool is not only sad, it comes back to haunt you when you stumble upon said piece of bread towards the end of the meal – not a pretty sight.
3. Watch what you drink
And by this, I mean DO NOT DRINK WATER. Complement your fondue with white wine during the meal and tea afterwards, and whatever you do stay away from the cold water. Drinking cold water causes the cheese to re-solidify in your stomach, and you can imagine how well THAT goes down with your loved ones and colleagues for the days following your fondue adventure.
Now that you’re prepared, make the most of the Swiss Cheese Union’s brainwashing, and go fondue yourself. I can recommend the following places in Geneva:
1. Bains des Paquis
I have to admit I’ve never actually fondued here, but rumour has it it’s the best in town. They make their fondue with champagne rather than wine, which apparently gives it the edge. Anyway, the atmosphere here is lovely – a wood fire, long wooden tables and an amazing view of the lake. And if you’re lucky, you might get to spot a few naked hotties walking to the saunas.
2. Hotel Les Amures
This is one of the oldest restaurants in the city, and it is beautiful in a traditional Genevois way. The food isn’t cheap but the experience is really nice, so it’s a good place to go for a special occasion or when you have friends visiting. Shout out to the wait staff here who refused to serve me water while I was eating fondue – at the time I was hating on them but when I heard about the whole re-solidification thing, I was retroactively grateful. Also, Bill and Hilary Clinton visited this restaurant in 1994 and there is a whole wall dedicated to them – it’s kind of cute.
3. Cave Valaisanne et Chalet Suisse
This place is usually teeming on the weekends, mostly with tourists or expats bringing visitors who want a taste of the real Swiss experience. To be honest, I don’t think you find it here – the service is totally rubbish, and while the food is good, it’s hard to enjoy it when you’re always waiting for something or trying to flag down one of the waiters who run about the place ignoring you.
4. Auberge de Savièse
If you want the real Swiss experience, definitely hit up this non-descript kitchy restaurant in the Paquis. If you can sit far away enough from the roaming guitar player to hear your dinner companions, you won’t be disappointed with the fondue, which is relatively cheap and delicious. This restaurant is no fuss but the staff are lovely and helpful and the fondue is great. Roll across to Café Arts for a digestif afterwards and you have yourself a fine night out in Geneva, and, with any luck, a well-functioning bowel system the next day.
* This was going to be “How to do fondue” but then I decided fondue is such an experience that it should definitely be a verb.
** The others being chocolate and weapons, an unlikely combination.
*** You ate a whole wheel of cheese? I’m not even mad, that’s amazing.