The Original Share Plate: The Art of Fondue
Words by Jessica McLennan
Nothing says ‘retro’ like a pot of fondue. But visit Melbourne’s Swiss Club and you’ll find that there’s a whole lot more to it than cheesy (pun intended) 1970s throwbacks — fondue is rich with history, traditions and a culture of shared camaraderie.
The phrase ‘share-plates’ seems to be a staple on menus at the moment. Seemingly every restaurant and café now offer dishes that can be split among a group of thrifty friends or with the family. However, the idea of ‘share-plates’ has existed since the dawn of time, as humans have always communed together for a meal, and enjoyed sharing in the comfort and nourishment of food.
The ultimate sharing food, of course, is fondue, the classic Swiss dish of melted cheese. It first entered Australia’s lexicon in the 1970s, and in our collective memory is closely associated with shag carpets and key parties. But its origins are both more humble and more worldly than that.
In a small building on Flinders’ Lane, hidden up a flight of stairs, is the Swiss Club restaurant, which has fed the members and guests of the Swiss Club for many years. Stepping into the Swiss Club is stepping into another era and another country; with pale wood panelling lining the walls and (on the first Thursday of each month) filled with the sounds of a traditional live Swiss band, it’s a world away from the tourists and minimalist hipster bars below. It’s designed in the style of a traditional Swiss Gastsube, with a casual bar towards the front and a decent sized dining room at the back. Adorning the walls are large silver cow bells and — just to remind you where you are, once again — the familiar red and white cross of the Swiss flag.
Foremost on the menu is the famous Swiss fondue. This classic dish traditionally contains just three ingredients — cheese (most often gruyere), wine and garlic — melted together and used as a dip for hunks of crusty bread and meat. It. Originally a way of improving stale bread and cheese offcuts for Swiss peasants, it quickly came down from the mountains and alpine regions of Switzerland. After the First World War, the Swiss Government pushed to popularise the dish internationally, and by the 1930s cheese fondue had become the national dish of the country. It soon travelled the world with migrants, and the Swiss folk who came to Australia were happy to bring this taste of home with them across the seas.
For Roger Moullet, the owner and chef of the Swiss Club, fondue is ‘a traditional dish, but still a bit different for diners.’ Especially Melbourne diners, who may not have eaten cheese fondue since its hey-days of the 1970s. For Moullet, there are set of factors that makes fondue so special; it’s not simply melted cheese, but the promise of discussion at the table and the communal act of eating together. In the age of ordering Uber Eats from the couch in front of Netflix, phone in hand, fondue provides an antidote; it cannot be eaten as a takeaway. Fondue is a dish best served in a traditional heated bowl, with good friends and conversation.
The Swiss Club, celebrating its one hundredth birthday this year, was Melbourne’s original Swiss social club, providing a home for the small but passionate group of migrants to socialise with their countryfolk and remain in contact with their culture and language. According to Moullet, the secret to the club’s longevity is the support that the club offers to its members. For newly arrived Swiss immigrants, or even those who have been in the country for many decades, the club provides a base for the homesick and a link to the motherland that they cannot find anywhere else.
For the Swiss migrants of the club, the act of eating fondue together provides an excuse to share news from home and reminisce about the Motherland. Moullet, who has lived in Australia for over fifty years, still prepares his fondue the way that he ate it as a child. He considers himself a traditionalist and relishes the chance to bring food from his mother’s kitchens to the diners of Melbourne. His fondue is served with bread, but also with pear, just the way his family used to make it.
Of course, fondue in Switzerland today has changed immensely. In restaurants now in Zurich or Geneva you might sample a fondue flavoured with chilli, mushroom, or peppercorn, or try the dish made with tomato, goat’s cheese, or even champagne. The format has evolved back with the passing of the years, but in the kitchen of Melbourne’s Swiss Club restaurant it has remained the same traditional peasant dish that you could find in any Swiss country kitchen.
That’s not to say that there is only one place to visit for great cheese fondue in Melbourne. Milk The Cow, the popular cheese venue in Carlton and St Kilda, is putting a modern twist on the classic dish, and winning over millennial fans. For those who prefer not to share their melted cheese, Milk The Cow sells individual fondue pots, made with a variety of European cheeses like Swiss gruyere, French comte, English cheddar and Tuscan pecorino. This is a true ‘melting pot,’ allowing the diner to experience the best of European cheeses in one easily consumed dish.
Of course, what is the point of an individual fondue? According to the fromagiers at Milk The Cow, the individual fondue pots are one of the best sellers at the venue, particularly in winter, because they allow a group of diners to all eat the cheeses of their choice, depending on taste or want. Milk The Cow really plays with the idea of fondue as a dish that must include cheese and wine — the three varieties they have on offer include a traditional dish with a white wine, one cooked with beer and one including port.
However, the idea of individual fondues is slightly antithetical to the whole idea of the dish. It’s about sharing the one bowl with a large group and, as such, some quirky rules have emerged about how to share the cheesy dish. White wine should always be served alongside the meal, with a shot of kirsch (cherry brandy) on the side to aid in digestion. You should never double dip your bread, and never dip your fondue fork while another still has theirs in the pot. The most interesting rule is that if your bread falls off your fork and is lost in the cheese you must pay a penalty such as buying all the drinks at the table, kissing the person next to you, or washing the dishes at the end of the meal. At the bottom of the fondue pot, if you’ve been eating it correctly, there should be a crusty layer of solid, golden cheese. This is called la religieuse (the nun) and traditionally should be shared among the whole group. Another option is to crack an egg into the pot and stir it around with la religieuse to create a cheesy scrambled egg, such thriftiness a nod to the dish’s peasant roots.
The Swiss Club does not follow this particular tradition, but they do stick to others. Alongside fondue they also serve potato rösti, another famous Swiss dish. Essentially a potato pancake, it is a terrific accompaniment to salmon, meat, or even more cheese. The word ‘moderation’ does not seem to exist in the Swiss lexicon, hence the need for that shot of kirch!
The Swiss Club is a haven for its members, who are able to find a small slice of home within its walls. The restaurant also provides a welcoming respite to guests, a space to eat a heartening and filling meal that will take them to the Swiss Alps, all in the centre of Melbourne. It’s a rare thing, to be transported away from your surroundings just through a meal, but the Swiss Club manages to do so with aplomb, and has done for many years. It’s an institution worth visiting just for the chance to try a traditional fondue, but also for the ambience of being in a European bistro. Even for a visitor, the restaurant feels like home. Surrounded by friends and eating melted cheese, there’s no place I’d rather retreat to on a wintry Melbourne evening.