One thing to remember about cheese fondue is that it's at its best right before the cheese runs out. The concentrated gooey stuff at the bottom of the pot is known in Switzerland as the culotte de berger, basically "the drawers of the shepherd," and is seen as the prize of the pot, says Gregg Upwood, one of the chefs at Fromagination.
So don't forget that if you're dining at the cheese emporium's communal fondue table this month, and strategically let your fondue-pot-partner eat up first; then, move in late for the spoils.
Fromagination, 12 S. Carroll St., is hosting Wednesday fondue lunches ($15) throughout February, with three seatings (with room for about ten people) at 11 a.m., 12:15 and 1:15 p.m. I attended the inaugural fondue seating on Feb. 4 and it went off without a hitch; the subsequent seatings were already well booked (12:15 p.m. was full; eight places reserved for 1:15 p.m.).
Fondue is a traditional Swiss dish that originated as a way for poor folk to use stale bread and cheese by melting the cheese in a heavy pot and dipping in the bread. It derives from the even older Swiss tradition of raclette, where cheese is melted and scraped off the larger wheel.
The base of Fromagination's fondue comes from Monroe's Roth Käse cheesemakers. It utilizes the company's flagship gruyères, both the Grand Cru Gruyère (aged six months) and the Grand Cru Gruyère Surchoix (aged 9 months), mixed with its Italian-style MezzaLuna Fontina and relatively rare Swiss white wine. The result is a rich, full-bodied blend that stops short of being pungent; it's earthy and nutty but not overpowering.
Pots are brought out hot from the kitchen and placed over burners; your first challenge is to keep stirring the cheese with your long fork. Do it like the Swiss: Sweep a figure eight in the pot with your piece of crusty white bread. If you drop your bread in the pot, lore has it you're supposed to kiss the diner on your right. One of my fellow diners eventually threw caution to the wind and dumped a lot of the bread pieces in, then fished them out with his fork -- both the figure-eights and the kissing turn out to be optional.
My fellow diners were all from the same office (plus one spouse) and hence they all knew each other, but the casual atmosphere and adventure of the meal ("Are you supposed to dip the carrots?") kept this from feeling awkward. Conversation moved from food to office scuttlebutt to a "true" story about some guys up north who went ice fishing and decided to blow a hole in the ice with a stick of dynamite that was then retrieved by their dog who dropped it near their brand new truck and then it exploded, sending the truck to the bottom of the lake...that turned out to be, yep, false. But entertaining.
Fromagination owner Ken Monteleone hopes that the communal table newly placed at the rear of the store will be the site of many future communal meals where people will talk and share their enthusiasm for food.
Besides the bread and cheese, lunch consisted of boiled fingerling potatoes; lightly sautéed carrots topped with butter, herbs and fleur du sel; slices of Nueske's summer sausage; and cornichons (diminutive pickles that are quite tart and traditionally served with fondue or raclette). Though you can dip anything you want, including the cornichons, the bread works the best as a dip agent, because the cheese adheres to it rather than slipping off. The carrots were particularly sweet and mellow, with a slight crunch, with that wonderfully salty glaze.
At the end of the meal, we all attempted to peel off the "drawers of the shepherd," which was accomplished only with the help of our server and a special wooden scraper, for the remains turned out to be quite gummy. (It's supposed to have a more cracker-like consistency and be able to be lifted off the bottom of the pot, if you've kept the temperature right throughout the meal.) Still, it was a yummy concentrated little dab.
Two fondue dinners will also be served at Fromagination on Feb. 13 and Feb. 27. And future communal meals are planned. In March, the focus will be on Italy's Parmigiano-Reggiano, a cheese that's recently been in the news due to the Italian government's cheese bailout program, helping producers by buying 100,000 wheels of the cheese and donating them to charity (but thereby incurring the ire of the makers of buffalo mozzarella). Fromagination will buy an 80-lb. wheel and all of March's special meals will come from it.
And who knows, buffalo mozzarella, you may even get a chance for your own month in the spotlight.