Absence makes the heart grow fondue. Well, that's what Fiona Beckett learnt when she went to new London restaurant Maquis to join a sampling session.
About the last starter you'd probably think of putting on the menu is that cheesy 1970s favourite, fondue. Yet that's precisely what's pulling in the crowds at Maquis, Sam Clark's new venture in Hammersmith, west London, where at weekends he serves 15-25 portions a night out of 80-120 covers.
Clark, who is working the stoves with head chef Olly Rowe, decided to revive the dish because "we wanted to bring a bit of fun to French food. I think it's succeeded because it's very sensual. One table sees another having it and they want it too." His raw ingredients, cheese and cider, are supplied by Patricia Michelson of La Fromagerie in London's Islington. Cider? Yes, that's the base rather than white wine. Not the powerful Diamond White, of course, but a gently sparkling cidre bouché from Normandy. "We like it because it provides a touch of sweetness," says Clark.
What makes the fondue exceptional is Michelson's Beaufort, a magnificent Gruyère-style cheese from the Savoie region of France, which Clark blends with Gruyère and a little Raclette. Exact proportions depend on the strength of the Gruyère. "The one we've got at the moment is slightly stronger than the previous one, so we're currently using more Raclette to balance the flavour," he says. "You want lots of flavour and complexity, but you don't want it so strong that people can't eat it." The three cheeses are grated and blended before being added to the warmed cider.
And that's it. There's no flour or corn flour added as a stabiliser (which gets Michelson's approval), and no last-minute dash of Calvados or kirsch. The cheeses are so good that the fondue doesn't need it.
What is important is how the fondue is handled to avoid the fat in the cheese splitting away from the liquid - the essentials being to stop it coming to the boil and to stir it constantly. Clark uses a couple of wooden spoon handles to keep the fondue moving, gradually adding cheese about one-third at a time to achieve a smooth, creamy texture. Then he seasons it with nutmeg and pepper. Remember, though, once it's placed on the burner at table you also need to regulate the flame so it does not boil.
Clark and Rowe serve their fondue with a bowlful of toasted croûtons hand-made from a sourdough baguette that they bake in-house. "We found our normal sourdough was too moist, so we made the baguettes specially," says Clark. "We use less brown flour than we do with our normal bread, and the higher ratio of crust to crumb helps it to hold together in the hot cheese."
Of course, if you are to follow Clark's lead, you need to get kitted out with fondue sets. They should be made from cast iron rather than stainless steel, which is only suitable for meat fondues, as served by the head chef of Hush in London's Mayfair, Henry Harris, who finds that his broth-based fondue goes down well with private parties.
For fondue sets, Clark recommends Chasseur (www.chasseur.co.uk). "The pots can go straight on to the burner for a one- or two-person portion but, if we're making them for four or more, we make up the fondue in a larger pan and pour it into individual pre-warmed pots," he explains. "At the start I held out against fondue forks, as they are really too naff, but everyone asked for them, so I had to give in."
Clark has priced the dish at £11 as a main course for one, or £12.50 to share as a starter, a level that he says meets with no resistance. "It's one of the cheaper main courses and a bargain for the incredible ingredients," he says. "But they have to be good. You don't want to even think about making fondue from cheeses that have gone a bit whiffy."
Of course, you can vary the cheese you use. Michelson proves the point by bringing along to the sampling session a well-matured Reblochon, a washed rind cheese from Savoie (you need to remove the pungent rind), which gives the fondue a marvellously silky texture. Clark has also tried a superb goats' cheese from Savoie, a Chevrotin des Aravis often described as "goat's Reblochon", and a Camembert Fermier, which both, interestingly, make the Swiss white wine which they tried the better match (see panel below).
"And, of course, there's no reason why you shouldn't use British cheeses combined with English white wine or cider to make a good regional dish," says Michelson, who suggests suitable combinations in her recently published book, The Cheese Room (Michael Joseph, £14.99). "Irish cheeses such as Durrus, Gabriel and Gubbeen are also good," she adds.
Clark and Rowe say that fondue provides the kitchen with a surprising amount of satisfaction. "My chefs can follow it all the way through, from making the bread in the morning to preparing and blending the cheese and making the final dish," says Rowe. "Although the recipe is simple, you can still make a fondue well or badly."
The only danger is that they may never be able to take it off the menu. "We were only going to have it on for two weeks a month, but it's really caught people's imagination," says Clark. "We plan to take it off for the summer, but customers may not let us."
What to drink with fondue…
Crisp, fruity, dry white wine is the classic choice, the obvious sources being Switzerland and the Savoie region of France. A 1999 Dezaley-Marsens De La Tour from Dubois et Fils (For the Love of Wine, 01359 270377) went very well at the sampling session. But with Clark's original recipe, the fabulously rich appley cider from Pierre Bauche, supplied by Michelson (020 7359 7440; www.lafromagerie.co.uk), was deemed even better.
We liked the fruity Yorkshire Square Ale from the Black Sheep Brewery (01765 689227), although the fondue slightly accentuated its bitterness.
A better match was Le Père Jules Pommeau de Normandie (a blend of cider, fresh apple juice and Calvados) from Leon Desfrieches (Harris Vintners, 01273 203418; www.brandydirect.co.uk), though it was considered too strong to drink throughout.
The best bet, it was felt, would be to round off the meal with a chilled glass of kirsch or eau-de-vie, such as Couprie Fleur de Vigne, an unaged brandy from Cognac (Harris Vintners).
… and what not to drink
Red wine - on the basis of the Languedoc red that was tried, it doesn't work at all.
More importantly, discourage your customers from drinking iced water. It solidifies the cheese in your stomach, leaving you feeling uncomfortably bloated.