On a recent Saturday afternoon in February, the cozy tasting room at Boordy Vineyards is crowded with visitors. But the main attraction this day isn't being served in a glass, but on a stick.
Caramel, chocolate and roasted red pepper pesto cheese fondue, each made with a swirl of Boordy wine, simmer in black crockpots on a buffet table brimming with fruit, vegetables and desserts for dipping.
"We thought it would be the perfect winter getaway," says Jennifer Marsh, who came from Owings Mills with three friends to enjoy the sweet and savory offerings. "Amongst all these diets today, it's a great splurge."
Boordy's director of events, Dottie Bistransin, says that when the vineyard staff was brainstorming event ideas, fondue was a natural choice because it not only goes well with wine, it also is fun. "It [fondue] works well with the feel Boordy wants to convey to people, that wine is about friendship," says Bistransin. "Fondue is relaxing, it makes people talk, it is warm. It is the perfect match to the feel we're trying to create at the winery with good wine and friends."
Boordy's "Fond of You ... Fondue" event (Saturdays and Sundays through February) is just one sign the communal pot that was standard issue in almost every home in the 1960s and '70s is back en vogue. Diane Keaney, who came from Alexandria, Va., to the Boordy event in Hydes, fondly remembers her fondue escapades in the '60s.
"We all did it," says Keaney. "It was quick and something you could set out and no one needed to be in the kitchen. There was not a whole lot of prep, and you could all get together around the fondue pot."
Of course, some would say fondue never went out of style. A dipping dinner has always been part of the scene at the Melting Pot, a fondue restaurant chain, which opened its first restaurant in Orlando in 1975. The chain now has nearly 70 nationwide locations, including restaurants in Towson and Annapolis, and one opening soon in Columbia.
"You would think most people would find it strange to cook their own food, but it's very interactive," says John Fox, owner of the Towson location, which opened five years ago. "It's not just the food, it's the atmosphere."
What made fondue fun in the '70s is fueling its resurgence. It is fast, fun and self-serve, and it is a great way to entertain, particularly winter nights when guests crave intimate conversation and warm foods. In fact, the concept was begun by folks who knew long winters -- Swiss cowherds who melted cheese to soften their old bread and extend their meager winter provisions.
"I think the allure is that conventional dining etiquette has us not touching each other's food," says Monyka Marbach, a Baltimore food and wine consultant. "You break that barrier when you have fondue because everyone puts their stick into the same pot. It's just a more convivial way of eating."
Susan and Mike Colombo of White Marsh are seasoned fondue aficionados. Susan tells how the couple served the traditional Swiss cheese fondue -- a combination of wine, Emmentaler, Appenzeller and Gruyere cheeses mixed with cherry brandy -- for friends on New Year's Eve.
"Fondue is something fun to do with friends because it is more of a drawn-out dinner so you can enjoy good friends and good wine," says Susan, who served the fondue with heavy hors d'oeuvres.
"It's more fun than just a formal dinner," adds her husband.
Although fondue looks complicated, it is fairly easy to prepare. The only equipment needed is a heat source, a fondue pot (a caquelon in Swiss) and a set of forked skewers, available in most fondue kits, which range in price from $35 to $100. A ceramic pot works best for cheese and dessert fondues, because it will keep a constant low heat that won't scorch the ingredients. Entree fondues are best served in a metal pot that will keep the liquid at a consistent and high enough temperature for cooking meat.
To prepare fondue at home, estimate one pot for every six guests and have two forks per person. There are four standard varieties of fondue, all of which are best prepared on a stove top and transferred to the fondue pot. The traditional cheese fondue is smoothest when it is gradually melted and tastier when finished with a shot of liquor such as a kirsch (the traditional Swiss addition), brandy or cognac.
Fondue bouguignonne is an entree fondue where oil is heated in a metal fondue pot on the stove top to 375 degrees before it is transferred to the tabletop stand. Using long skewers, guests cook their own bite size bits of meat in the oil (allow 6 to 8 ounces of boneless meat per person). Always use a separate fork to eat the meat, as the one in the oil will be too hot. Serve the meat with an assortment of dipping sauces like bearnaise and aioli.
A more recent incarnation of fondue takes its inspiration from the Asian style of hot pot cooking. This style uses broth to cook the meat instead of oil. Its Asian inspiration lends it well to dipping sauces like peanut satay or teriyaki sauce.
Fondue's piece de resistance is chocolate fondue. Chef Konrad Egli of New York's Chalet Swiss restaurant is credited with creating this decadent dessert in 1964. Since its inception, dessert fondue has grown to include many flavor variations, such as white chocolate, caramel and even tiramisu.
Because fondue is communal and creative, it is great for parties. Marbach recommends that the hostess ask each guest to bring a part of the fondue course to set the mood for the communal dining. Dipping items are limited only by the imagination. Use roasted vegetables, cubed bread and bite-sized slices of sausage or boiled new potatoes in a cheese fondue. Consider pretzels, pears, gooey brownies or lemon bars to serve with dessert fondue.
"You can pretty much adapt it to anything. There are just basic rules you have to follow," says Marbach. "The cheeses that you are going to use have to melt, which means you are better off using hard cheeses."
It is easy to vary the fondue flavors to match a theme or event. Marbach has thrown a fondue party with traditional Swiss cheese fondue with a skiing theme. "You get everybody together on a day that downhill skiing is on TV and you get everyone to wear their apres-ski wear."
Season a broth fondue with red chilies for a Mexican flavor and serve salsa on the side. One of Marbach's favorites, perfect for St. Patrick's Day fetes, is a beer and Irish cheddar fondue served with Guinness and soda bread.
Fondue is a party in a pot where conversation swirls around the table as surely as creamy melted cheese trails a bit of bread. The only caveat is to dip with care. Fondue folklore has it that if a woman drops a cube of bread into the pot, she has to kiss all the men; if a man drops a cube, he has to buy a bottle of wine. If a person drops two cubes, he must be the host at the next fondue party.
Doing the dip
Fond of You ... Fondue, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays in February, Boordy Vineyard, 12820 Long Green Pike, Hydes. $10. Phone 410-592-5015.
The Melting Pot, 418 York Road, Towson. 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday; 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday; and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Phone 410-821-6358.
The Melting Pot, 2348 Solomons Island Road, Annapolis. 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to midnight Friday; 4 p.m. to midnight Saturday; 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Phone 410-266-8004.
Boordy Vineyards Caramel Fondue
2 tablespoons butter
one 16-ounce bag mini marshmallows
two 16-ounce jars caramel sauce
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup Boordy Vineyards Coastal Cuvee wine
Melt butter in saucepan over low heat. Add marshmallows and stir until smooth. Add caramel sauce, cream and vanilla. Mix completely.
Add wine and simmer 5 minutes.
Serve in crockpot on low heat with sliced apples and pears.
Per serving: 735 calories, 4 grams protein, 11 grams fat, 7 grams saturated fat, 162 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 39 milligrams cholesterol, 623 milligrams sodium.