Fondue pots are making a comeback. The metal and ceramic pots that back in the 1970s were the wedding present of choice are once again showing up on the eating scene.
I saw one recently in Locust Point, the Baltimore neighborhood widely known as the home of Fort McHenry. There in the Hull Street Blues, a bar and restaurant made by joining two rowhouses, a handful of well-dressed and mostly well-behaved adults skewered pieces of bread and dunked them into a white ceramic fondue pot.
In the pot was a cheese fondue, a hot mixture made with lemon juice, white wine, grated Gruyere, Emmanthal and Appenzeller cheeses, a little flour and a little kirsch. The cheese fondue was an appetizer here, but depending on what warm liquid is bubbling in the pot, the fondue experience can also mean immersing cubes of meat in hot oil, or dipping fruit in warm chocolate.
The last time I was grazing in a fondue pot Nixon was a president, not a movie. But the other night in Locust Point, the basic fondue technique slowly came back to me. I skewered, I dipped, I ate. Dan Macatee, the owner of Hull Street Blues, watched my form. He told me to dip deeper. The good stuff, he said, sinks to the bottom of the pot. I reloaded my skewer and dredged. He was right. In life, virtue may rise to the top but in fondue pots, flavor sinks. "Bottom fishing" a fondue pot is rewarding.
This cheese fondue was the first course in a seven-course wine-and-cheese event put together by Macatee and Graham and Beverly Vinzant, owners of the Cross Street Cheese Co., a South Baltimore cheese shop. It was an impressive matchmaking of cheese and grapes. A young Dutch Gouda came and went with an acidic California sauvignon blanc; a Bavarian brie with mushrooms had its moment with a rare white Chateauneuf-du-Pape; a duck and chicken liver pate paired up with a smooth Longoria pinot noir from Santa Barbara; a smoked Cheddar from Grafton Village Vermont stood up to a rowdy Topolos Vineyard California zinfandel.
A slice of Parmigiano-Reggiano, a Parmesan too good to grate, was sliced and served with a big Azelia Barolo, an Italian red. As a finale, a German triple cream blue cheese waltzed out with some 1985 Feuerheerd vintage port.
The cork on the port was crumbling, so rather than uncorking the bottle and taking the risk that parts of the cork would hit the prized port, the wine steward chopped the top of the bottle off. Thankfully, this decapitation was performed out of our sight. All that I and the handful of other cheese eaters saw was the stunted bottle. It looked like a professional football player, all shoulders, no neck. The port was cork-free and tasted delicious.
While this wine-and-cheese pairing was impressive, it is not something I'm likely to try to do at home. I could, however, make fondue, if I could find the pot that my wife and I received as a present when we got married -- sometime back in the time when young men had long hair, young women had short skirts, and everybody had black and white TVs.
I thought my fondness for bubbling cheese and oil made me a fogy. But then I spoke with Abigail Kirsch, a Tarrytown, N.Y., caterer. She said that rather than being retro, I was with-it, at least as far as cookware was concerned.
Fondue is in vogue again, she said. Fondue pots and their accompanying paraphernalia are, she said, welcome gifts at any bridal shower. Kirsch, a mother of four and grandmother of nine, has just written "The Bride & Groom's First Cookbook" (Doubleday, $27.50). In the book she recommends that newlyweds acquaint themselves with the joys of fondue.
"I tell them with fondue you can do all the preparation beforehand, and when the guests come they do the cooking themselves," Kirsch said. The ease of fondue-cooking appeals to young couples because many of them do not have much kitchen experience, she added. Moreover, many young couples spend long hours at their jobs and are looking for quick ways to entertain once they get home. Dunking food in warm liquids fits that bill.
Tastes have changed somewhat since the 1970s, Kirsch said. Ingredients like ginger and cilantro now show up in the sauces that pieces of cooked meat or chicken are dipped in. Another change is that vegetables are now prominent fondue players.
Vegetables best suited for the fondue pot are thick, chunky types, like zucchini and eggplant, Kirsch said. Delicate vegetables wilt in hot oil.
As for the oil, Kirsch recommends using peanut oil because it gets very hot before it smokes. Safflower oil can be used by fondue eaters concerned about their cholesterol. Whatever type of oil is used, it should be heated in a saucepan on a stove until the oil reaches 375 degrees, then transferred to the fondue pot. The candle that sits underneath the fondue pot can keep a liquid hot, she said, but it can't make it boil.
As for Kirsch's statement that brides of today want fondue pots, she has personal experience to back it up. Not long ago she gave her niece a white enamel fondue pot for a wedding present. "And when she opened it," Kirsch said, "she screamed with delight."