Before he was the KING OF CHEESE he was just Fred Fischer, a dairyman, a ladies’ man, a man with hands well accustomed to curds and teats. As cheese kings often do, Fischer lorded over a cheese shop. His was called, simply enough, the Cheese Shop, and it sat in the Swiss village of Grenchen near a lake not too far from Bern.
The Chäsi, which is how the Swiss say “cheese shop” in their funny German dialect, was not your average cheese shop, for Fischer was no average monger. Just as his father, his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father had done, and just as his own sons were doing now, Fischer had dedicated his life to the stuff. Cheese was a business, yes, but it was also a torch he carried down from his Alemannic forebears and a passion for all the delightful things that one can do with milk.
On weekends and mornings, especially before the holidays or when the forecast called for snow, the townsfolk would bury chins into scarves and amble down Schild-Rust-Strasse to the Chäsi, inside a building the Grenchen Dairy Cooperative had owned for 90 years. They’d lean into the glass doors and feel their nostrils flare. Inside, the cool showcases glimmered with colorful trophies of Alpchäs and round, spruce-wood containers of vacherin mont d’or. Fischer had hard, lumpy chunks of Sbrinz, one of Switzerland’s oldest cheeses, and creamy cylinders of tête de moine. He had wedges of raw-milk Erguël and wheels of l’Etivaz, a semihard wood-fired cheese made from the milk of cows that graze on wildflowers that grow at 6,500 feet. He had cheeses that no other monger had.
A fine cheese shop in Switzerland is hardly rare, but Fischer wasn’t through. On days when he wasn’t skiing at nearby Adelboden in his bright red jacket, he’d pull out his kitchen scales and a sheet of paper and measure and blend his ingredients into strange and wonderful fondues. These were not the sad, sallow versions your mother made in the ’70s. No, Fischer’s fondues were sensational brews that could transport a dinner party back to a favorite time in the Alps or deep into the recesses of a childhood Christmas memory. “I want people to take a bite of my fondue, close their eyes, and feel something,” Fischer would say.
Back in the day, if foreigners wanted to become Swiss, agents of the Einwohnerdienst might knock on their doors and ask for a fondue. Did the applicants rub the pot with garlic? Did they use the right cheeses—always a base of vacherin and Gruyère? Did they get the right wine and just enough kirsch? The agents weren’t hungry. It was a test to see how well immigrants had integrated themselves into Swiss society.
Fischer’s fondues would have resulted in instant deportation. Instead of just cheese and booze, Fischer made “Al Capone” fondues with pesto and mascarpone. He made “English” fondues with mustard and whiskey. His “James Bond” fondue called for the cheese to be melted in champagne and a martini, shaken, not stirred. In all, Fischer penned 50 recipes for fondues that the Swiss had never seen.
From there his popularity soared. Real estate companies hired him to organize team-building parties that focused on fondue. Bankers brought him in for lavish soirées in Zermatt. He invented special forks and special belts with detachable breadbaskets so his friends could eat fondues while standing in a forest. The local newspaper hailed him king.
Slowly, though, the kingdom began to crumble. After 20 years, the Chäsi needed costly repairs, but Fischer and the cooperative disagreed over who should pay for them. A full-blown supermarket with mass-packaged fondues moved in 1,000 feet away, and sales began to slide. “Fondue King Retiring,” blared the Grenchner Tagblatt in 2011, when Fischer announced that he was calling it quits. “Future of Chäsi Uncertain.”
In a way, though, Fischer’s legacy had never been more sure. For unbeknownst to him, 5,399 miles away in a snowy Oregon ski town, a man he’d never met was laboring over his own scales and working out his own formulas on his own sheets of paper. He’d been working for years to cement his own fondue fame among a precious group of friends.
And while this man, much to his wife’s consternation, once bought most of a wheel of rotting vacherin that had miraculously appeared in a local delicatessen one day, and while his blends were good and his love for the ritual great, the man needed more. He needed an Old Country master to lead him deep into the ways of the cheese, to show him the quiet corners of the country where the ingredients are born, and to reveal the techniques that could transform his own fondues into memories.
That man was me.
I was MEANT to be him. It all began one frigid winter day in 1991, when I was 18, heartbroken, and living for a year outside Geneva with a Swiss family I’d never met before. That night my host-father, a powder skier and a wealth manager for a rich Saudi minister, made a fondue at the family home on Old Willows Way just as snow fogged the panes in frosty spandrels. The miasma could have made Dr. Scholl question his vocation, but one dip and swirl of a bread cube later, my little mind popped.
Maybe it was the alcohol that hollowed out my head or the interactive, merry nature of the meal, but henceforth I had cheese on the brain. I logged 33 days at ski resorts in the Alps that winter, and fondue factored into many of them. I ate it in Zermatt, Verbier, and Champéry. I ate it in Meiringen after my first real powder day. Each fondue made me feel so worldly. There I’d be with legs glowing from a ski day’s burn, babbling in French with mes amis, stirring the schmaltz of adolescence. From then on nothing could complete a day in the mountains like a steaming pot of cheese. A sausage? No, thanks.
I cried uncontrollable tears when I had to come home, and over the next decade or so I put my love for fondue on simmer. It was impossible to find the right cheeses in Western mountain towns in the ’90s. I couldn’t have afforded them anyway. But 16 years later, in 2008, my wife, Heidi, and I returned to Switzerland, where I’d been offered a job. At last I could become a fondue fiend.
It took me all of a month to buy our first fondue pot, a red caquelon adorned with a white Swiss cross, which I got before securing our newborn daughter a crib. Fondue was not something “a divorced dad makes for his kids,” as a Planet Money reporter once cracked, but an art that I mucked up aplenty. I made it too runny or too thick; I burned it and drowned it in booze. It didn’t matter. You could find the critical cheeses—real vacherin and Gruyère—easier than you could find tortillas. Soon fondue became our frozen pizza, the thing to cook when no one felt like cooking.
But it’s a myth that the Swiss eat fondue all the time. Six times a year seems about right. And even Swiss cheeseologists, bless their moldy souls, say there are as many origin stories about fondue as there are ways to make it. Homer mentions a similar dish in The Iliad. A Zurich woman penned a recipe called “To Cook Cheese with Wine” in 1699. Ultimately the French name for the dish stuck after master chef Vincent La Chapelle included “Fonduë,” meaning “melted,” in The Modern Cook, published in 1735.
Today the French, Italians, Germans, Austrians, and even the Portuguese and Chinese have their own ways of making fondue. But no one has folded the dish into their national identity like the ski-loving Swiss. Iron Age farmers in Switzerland were making cheese in alpine huts 3,000 years ago. Surely they melted it. Or if not, then the blending of cheeses to make one unique dish serves as a tidy metaphor for a tiny country with four languages and cultures—e cheesius unum, if you will.
Whatever fondue’s provenance, when we went back to our cozy home in Bend, Oregon, in 2011, I was determined to keep the spirit alive. I returned to Switzerland often to ski and work, and each time I came home with cheeses to last the winter. It became a thing. After skiing at Bachelor we’d tap “Schweizer Volksmusik” into Spotify and invite friends over for a hot night of fondue. Eventually I developed equations for perfect proportions every time. To make my fondues required algebra.
Indeed, I had become my own Stephen Hawking of cheese, yet I yearned for more. Had I truly rubbed the edges of this universe like so much garlic in the pot? One day last fall I wrote an e-mail to the most proudly Swiss guy I knew, a colleague back in Bern, wondering whether he knew of a fondue expert who might be willing to take me under his wing.
As a matter of fact he did.
Ah, FISCHER! I’m eating a Chäschüechli, a little cheese pie, outside the train station in Spiez, a 13th-century town near Interlaken, when the king himself drives up. It’s February, and a light snow is falling.
I guess I was expecting a portly dweeb with Roquefort slicks across his chins, but Fischer is athletic and handsome. He’s 54 years old with a black soul patch. I toss my skis into his Nissan Qashqai and we zoom off toward a ski area called Engstligenalp, near Adelboden.
“You said it right when you e-mailed me,” Fischer says in his singsong German as the countryside squeezes in around us. “Fondue does foster friendship and Gemütlichkeit. I think you’re going to have some ‘emotions’ over these next few days.” A T-bar whisks us high onto the broad face of the
Dossen, a 7,500-foot pyramid of limestone looming over a massive hanging valley. The sharp roofs of alpine huts struggle to peek out of the four feet of snow that have fallen over the past three days. For safety’s sake we stick to the runs. It’s midweek and no one is here. Fischer loves places like these.
“In the summertime this is all green,” he booms, sweeping his poles across the vista. He explains how the cows that graze up here produce rich, aromatic milk thanks to the 50 types of grasses, herbs, and flowers they find in every square meter of pasture. Fischer, who grew up over his father’s dairy near Solothurn, used to spend 100 days a summer living in a hut high in the Alps not far from here, tending cows and making cheese. He loved the ancestral ritual and how simple variables (like cooking times) and simple tools (like rocks) could transform basic milk into complex cheese. People now pay him upwards of $100 a person to attend his fondue parties. Otherwise he’s buying cheese for a dairy distribution company called Baumann. “It’s a nice way of living, up there on the alp,” he says, somewhat wistfully. “It can be lonely, but cows don’t care if you’re late or sick or hungover.”
The light turns flat, so we ski down for lunch inside a spectacular multichambered igloo perched at midmountain. Edelweiss entombed in airless ice and backlit with soft LEDs glow from inside the frozen walls. Candles flicker from tables with wooden benches softened by thick sheepskin covers. The air smells of hot wine and cheese.
The fondue is excellent but not light-years better than mine, which makes me kind of proud. Fischer didn’t make it, but he clarifies the rules for eating it. Always drink wine, black tea, or kirsch—never beer or cold water—to avoid a “cheese baby” forming in your belly. Save the crusty burned bit on the bottom—called the “nun” in French, the “grandmother” in German—to eat at the very end. Lose your bread in the pot and you must kiss the chef. “For some reason the ladies always throw their bread into the pot when they’re with me,” says the king with a smirk. “It’s a real problem.”
Fischer takes me deep into his world over the next couple of days. We visit dairies in the rolling pre-Alp region of Fribourg, where I procure large wedges of Gruyère and vacherin from the Bongard family, one of the most decorated cheese families in Switzerland. He shows me how curds should feel in your hand when they’re ready to be pressed. We drink warm whey straight out of the tank.
There is no doubt this man is worthy of his crown when I witness him at his best one night. A hardware company hired him to throw a fondue party, then canceled, but word got out and 30 mostly random people have shown up on a moment’s notice. We all huddle in a cozy cabin in Biel, divide into groups, and make “Fireman,” “Pyrenean,” “flambé,” and “English” fondues at our tables using his extraordinary blends of cheeses, creams, spices, wines, and champagne.
Fischer tells jokes as he marches around the room in a traditional Swiss wrestling shirt, barking instructions on when to add more wine and how to properly stir (in a figure eight with a wooden spoon that has a hole in it). “I love fondue, but I’ve never made it like this before,” says a giggling nurse at my table. Fischer rings a bell and we pass the pots around so we each can sample them all. The laughter peals for hours.
But the real “emotion” comes unexpectedly another evening when Fischer leads me to the edge of a hillside forest called the Freiholz, north of Bern. Dozens of strangers have gathered here in the icy dark for a fondue al fresco. We strap on belts with metal breadbaskets attached, fill them up with cubes, and stir large witches’ cauldrons of burbling cheese with these extra-long forks that Fischer invented.
Tiny Swiss villages flicker below. Cross-country skiers slip by on a cushion of moonlit snow. The kirsch flows as freely as my poorly conjugated verbs. So warm. So beautiful. By the end I’m hugging strangers and tears threaten my eyes.
Such is the power of the cheese.
A few days before I meet the KING I linger around the French-speaking regions of western Switzerland to make the most of an epic snowstorm. I log face shots in Villars and Gstaad, recharge over wedges of tomme de Vaud in the Hôtel de Rougemont, and track down slabs of l’Etivaz from the country’s only l’Etivaz cellar (in the hamlet of l’Etivaz, of course). One night I slip through the snow-wrapped hemlocks to a fairy-tale hut called Solalex and gorge on warm, gooey bins of pungent vacherin mont d’or while a cat snoozes by the fire.
My plan to ski while gathering ingredients for a spectacular fondue party is well on track. By now Fischer has helped me net enough stinky cheese to make any contraband-sniffing canines at customs keel over from the fumes. I just need the wine—a chasselas or a fendant—and a bottle of kirsch. As with the cheese, I want them from the source.
The kirsch proves tough to find, but after asking around I luck out and score a precious bottle from a quiet man named Oliver Matter. Matter, 45, once made news for making absinthe with Marilyn Manson. His kirsch is no less eye-popping than the shock rocker.
The fourth-generation distiller combs the countryside for the scattered remains of Switzerland’s old-growth cherry trees, harvesting fruit from one tree here, another tree there, until he’s gathered enough to distill a small batch of the clear brandy. “Switzerland is kirschland,” he tells me, “but, yes, I like to think this bottle is unique.”
A former ski-school director and restaurateur named Raoul Colliard helps me with the wine. In winter, Colliard will burn through 12 tons of cheese serving fondues at one of Switzerland’s most authentic cheese chalets, a historic place called Le Tsale in the small ski town of Les Paccots, above Châtel-Saint-Denis.
If Fischer is the Jerry Lee Lewis of fondue, Colliard is its Chopin. At 74 years old, ruddy-cheeked, with thumbs calloused from decades of milking cows, Colliard is a purist who lets his cheese stand alone. One of his most remarkable fondues uses a vertical flight of a single- source vacherin with a mix of ages from about three to seven months. No thickeners. No wine. No kirsch. He’s used the same fork to stir so many of these fondues that the tines are nothing but nubs.
“I’m supposed to make a fondue for the Prime Minister of Canada in Montreal next month, and they can only get me one vacherin,” he sighs when we meet over a pot of his vacherin at Le Tsale. It’s stunning—far cooler than most burbling mixes but rich and delicate, with the consistency of latex paint. “You need at least four vacherins to give it this character, so I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he frets. “C’est terrible!”
The next few days are magnificent, however. I ride the surface lifts at Les Paccots, finding stashes of soft powder on the edges of the pistes, and sled down from a mountaintop chalet in the dark, loopy on wine. All in all I eat six fondues in five days—an entire year’s worth in less than a week. The Swiss are mortified. My cheese baby is full-term.
Sadly, in the spectacularly terraced Lavaux wine-making region on the shores of Lake Geneva, my mission comes to a close. There Colliard’s friend Jean-François Cassy and his family have made chasselas for generations. We sit around Cassy’s table eating charcuterie and sampling smoky garanoirs as wind whips great banners of snow off the Alps across the lake. By the time I fly home I have four liters of his best whites in a duffle. The customs agents never blink. All of my loot is legal.
ACTUALLY, there’s one more thing to do. The ski season is winding down when I throw my grand fondue fête. My wife and I cover our table in fake gems, put on the Volksmusik, and prepare to get rowdy with cheese.
Friends invite friends who invite more friends, and I worry I won’t have enough cheese for all 14 of us, until I remember, oh yeah, I have 15 pounds of it.
I do as Fischer told me to do and get my proportions dialed. I let the cheeses soak in wine for at least an hour before firing up the warmers. I explain the rules—the stirring, the kissing, the nun and the grandmother. We crack open the wines and do shots of kirsch while the anticipation builds.
Soon the house smells like Old Willows Way. We have pots bubbling with Gruyère and vacherin, and another with Appenzeller and raclette on top. My pure vacherin fondue turns out a separated mess, the result of getting impatient and heating it too quickly, but the James Bond fondue is a resounding hit. That caquelon will be licked clean when the night is through.
I duck out of the room for a minute to eavesdrop and savor the moment.
“Oh my God!” says Erin.
“This is amazing!” “Wonderful!” says Chris.
“This one is spectacular,” says Mark.
And then Siobhan delivers the money: “This reminds me of being a kid.”
The king is gone.
Here lives the king.