How was this my first experience with fondue? The ultimate feast of bread and cheese and wine. Long overdue. And it would’ve been longer if it weren’t for our fondue party in Pensacola. When I hear the word fondue, I immediately conjure up visions of a dinner party circa the 1970s. Several couples sitting around a bright orange fondue pot with multicolored forks, dipping chunks of bread, cherry tomatoes or beef into warm, melty cheese or bubbling oil. I admit, I rolled my eyes at his fondue party idea; but I’m glad he talked me into it.

In fact, fondue is a delicious and fun meal for a casual dinner party. There are many variations of fondue au fromage, differing mainly by which cheese the recipe uses. Rather than picking a particular recipe, we figured fondue is more a style of eating, and came up with our own combination. Remember that the most important aspect of a first-rate fondue is the cheese. Internet research led us to the Four Winds International Food Market; finding it was like a “Joe sent us” mission. Our patience was rewarded with a massive selection of gorgeous imported and domestic cheeses, among an impressive array of other items packed tightly in this tiny store. The pushy passionate cheesemonger offered us tastes of Roquefort [before it disappears!], Comté, Bûche de Chèvre, Iberico, Gruyère and Valdeón. If not for other customers stepping up to the counter, we may have sampled most of the other 300+ types of cheeses. No complaints – the cheapest cheese flight in town, plus a free glass of red wine!

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The final selection*: Valdeón, Comté and Bûche de Chèvre. Valdeón is a Spanish cow and goat’s milk blue – the tamer, yet still intensly-flavored, little brother of Cabrales. A creamy and crumbly cheese with deep blue veins and distinct pockets of mold, wrapped in Sycamore leaves. If you like blues, this one deserves a taste. Comté is a centuries-old raw cow’s milk cheese from France. Both sweet and nutty, this cheese easily shreds and is a traditional alternative to Gruyère in fondue. A masterpiece. Another delight from France is Bûche de Chèvre. This exquisite goat’s milk log, or buche, is coated with a mold and then aged for up to two months. During the aging process, the cheese ripens from the inside out creating an edible bloomy white rind that cloaks a semi-soft, chalky, brilliant ivory center. Bûche de Chèvre is the new runner-up behind Humboldt Fog for favorite goat’s milk cheese. The Comté and Valdeón, together with a tiny bit of Gruyère and Emmenthaler purchased elsewhere, would go into our fondue. We had other plans for the Chèvre.

The assembly: Our baguettes baked the morning prior – a triumph! – had been left on the counter overnight to dry out. I tore three into bite-sized pieces and piled them high on a platter.

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He was in charge of muscling out the cheese shredding. It was an undertaking my arm probably could not have handled. The guide recommended 5-7 ounces cheese** per person… six diners times six ounces = thirty-six ounces [2 1/4 pounds!!] of cheese, and I’m guessing one very sore arm [though he didn’t admit to it]. Don’t have an authentic Swiss fondue pot? The crock pot is a suitable stand-in. Although I recommend melting the cheese on the stove in a heavy-bottom pot first, then transferring to the crock pot for serving. So into a garlic-rubbed crock pot the cheese mixture went, also adding dry white wine and cornstarch dissolved in a bit of wine. Over medium-high heat we let the cheese melt, stirring occasionally and tasting frequently – for quality control, of course.

In the meantime we finished preparing our dippables: I steamed some broccoli and oven-roasted several baby red potatoes that had been cubed and coated in olive oil, salt and pepper; he cooked the lamb steaks to pink perfection.

Once the cheese was entirely melted and ready to serve, we added leftover Cava [in lieu of Kirsch], grated nutmeg and a generous amount of freshly-ground black pepper. One last quick stir [and taste] before heading out to be served with the bread, broccoli, potatoes and lamb, accompanied by a bottle each of Shiraz and Albariño. His friends brought a fresh fruit bowl, strawberry poppy seed salad with slivered almonds and edam [more cheese!], and a bottle of Moscato d’ Asti. For dessert, the steamed banana coconut cake – a birthday cake for his friend turning 25 that weekend.

This style of eating is actually most enjoyable: sitting around the table getting to know a few new friends over cheese-induced happiness, a glass or two [or three] of wine, great music and a cup of six dice. The company was as good as the fondue, with the conversation growing more and more animated as the wine kicked in and the games continued. Following cake, our guests headed home [at 10p – party animals, right?] completely sated and cholesterol levels upped by at least 75%. Eh, it’s not like we have fondue parties every week.

Between snitched bites of leftover cake, our conversation turned – as is customary – to our next meal…

*Our basket also contained a bottle of nut brown ale for beer floats, two fresh lamb steaks, and lamb mince that was ground for us while we noshed.

**5-7 oz./person yielded a LOT of cheese! We ended up with 2+ cups left over. I’d venture that 2-4 oz./person would be fine, depending on appetites and if other dishes are being served alongside.

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