Surviving Switzerland

an expat's experiences navigating the land of mountains, cheese and chocolate

Fondue; the first taste

One of the first surprises I encountered when I arrived in Switzerland as a perky college student on a year’s study abroad was fondue. This classic Swiss meal comprised of melted cheese in a pot nearly knocked me off my bench and onto the floor of the restaurant three times: first, when the pot was brought out, second, when I started eating it, and third, 25 minutes later, after I realized I had eaten too much.

There were about 40 foreign exchange students in the group I was with at the restaurant; other Europeans for the most part and a couple of Americans besides myself. The excursion had been organized by the University of Fribourg Welcome Committee and we took up the top floor of a two floor, all wooden-interior cafe in the middle of town. We crowded six to a table probably only meant for four on pine chairs and benches, picking at the slices of fresh bread in baskets like the half-starved youths we were and poking each other with the long, skinny fondue forks.

Then the waitress started bringing out the pots and set them without any further ado, fanfare or explanations in the middle of the tables. Luckily, the University Welcome Committee lady was present and told us to break the bread into chunks and stick it on the end of our forks, then swirl it around in the melted cheese and eat it. She warned us not to let our bread fall off into the cheese, because it is hard to catch again and if you do it three times, you have to get buck naked and run two full laps around the restaurant. Or in this case, around the block because the restaurant was in a row of buildings all sharing walls. At least, I think that’s what she said; my French was only so-so at the beginning of my stay.

My rule of thumb in those early days was that if I didn’t understand what anyone was saying, I did what the Europeans did. Nod knowingly when they nodded, laugh when they laughed, start walking when they walked, stick the bread on my fork and swirl it in the cheese when they did, get buck naked and…uhh, well, anyway, you get the picture.

My surprise stemmed primarily from two questions that popped in my head as the waitress put our fondue on the table. How can melted cheese and bread make a whole meal? And how will one pot of cheese ever be enough for six of us?

If you’ve never had fondue, you’d be asking yourself the same questions. I come from the Midwest. Meals are meat and potatoes and maybe some canned green beans or some corn on the cob, plus bread in baskets and gravy if Grandma made it. One pot of melted cheese for six of us? Only bread to go with it? Granted, there was a little bowl of teeny-tiny pickles and pickled baby onions as garnish, but really, that didn’t count as part of the food. It was kind of like going to a Mexican restaurant and being served nachos with a side of jalapeno peppers for dinner.

My first bite swayed my dubious opinion. So what if this was all we were having? At least it tasted like creamy, salty, tangy and totally gooey bliss. Twenty-five minutes later, we were scraping the sides and bottom of the pot for the last stringy bites of melted cheese and picking at the grilled bits with our fork prongs. I was full. I was stuffed. I was happy and sated. And I was convinced; you can make an entire meal with just cheese and bread.

I was reaching for the pot with a chunk of bread to try and coax enough of the cheese onto to it for one very last bite when it hit me. Fondue has a terrible habit of turning into a bowling ball in your stomach, but I didn’t know this beforehand.

I had eaten too much.

It felt like my distended stomach was being held together by cheese glue alone. My new European friends were with me, though, and we all rolled out of the cafe, groaning and stumbling for the nearest bar for another round of white wine—the official cure to hardened cheese balls in your stomach.

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