I Found Cheeses on Kauai

Kauai is a small place with limited choice in the grocery stores, so if you come from elsewhere and you’re hankering for what you used to eat “back home,” you’re going to be disapointed. Over time, you learn to live without. But sometimes, when you go looking, you just might find, you get what you need. I used to live in the French Alps, just south of Switzerland, and I learned to make and love cheese fondue.

My basic recipe for “real” fondue has 3 cheeses: one stringy one, one flavorful nutty one, and one rich one. In France, those correspond to French Emmental, Comté, and Beaufort; in Switzerland Swiss Emmental, Gruyère, and Appenzeller. I’ve always been on the lookout for good European cheese here, and quickly learned to be weary of the Président Brie and other brands made in Wisconsin. If you care about those things, European cheese is made from milk from cows that do not receive bovine growth hormone.

When Costco moved in, they brought a constant supply of Comté and Gruyère at a good price, which was a great improvement. And then just before Christmas, I saw real Swiss Appenzeller at Safeway. I’d seen some Emmental at various places, but one day we melted the much cheaper Norwegian Jarlsberg from Costco, and I knew it was the perfect stringy substitute.

So, eventhough spring is practically here with this great weather, the nights are still chilly and a fondue is still in season. Here is my Kauai fondue recipe:

  • Jarlsberg from Costco, Comté from Costco, Appenzeller from Safeway

    in the ratio 2:2:1 for a total of 1/2 pound of cheese per person, rounding up for hungry people. So for 4 people, I think I had 1 lb each of Jarlsberg and Comté and 1/2 lb of Appenzeller. Always remove the rinds. For best results, shred the cheese if you have a food processor, otherwise just cut it up as small as you can, and mix it all together.

  • 1/4 cup white wine per person, rounding up to match the cheese. I used 2006 Clos du Bois Chardonnay and it worked great, I think the 2006 Mirassou Chardonnay I just found at Safeway for $10 would work just as well. Get 1/2 bottle per person at least, because what you don’t cook in the fondue, you drink with it.
  • 1/4 to 1/2 clove garlic per person, depending on taste.
  • The bread is important too. I was going to buy it all at Costco because it looked just right, but fortunately my daughter wanted to eat some in the store, and I found it to be too dense. So I only bought the package of 5 little breads we had opened. Much as I hate to say it, Safeway makes the right kind of French baguette, crispy and crumbly on the outside, light and fluffy inside—regular or sourdough, depending on what you prefer (real French bread is in between). In the California, Acme Bread was the closest to French artisan bread I could find. Count on a half-baguette per person, at least.
  • The choice of fondue pot is also important. We have had several fondue sets over the years, but my wife got rid of the pots because they had teflon or aluminum. In the end, we use our everyday stainless steel pots, and the thick bottom works great to spread the heat once we move it to the burner on the table.

Make the fondue just before you eat it. If you haven’t cut the bread beforehand, ask your guests to do it now. Cut the bread roughly into 1 inch cubes.

The original recipe I learned said to cut the garlic and just wipe the fondue pot with it, but we like garlic in our house, so we just press it and put it all in. Then add the wine and heat it over medium heat. Enjoy the fumes, because that’s where all the alcohol goes. Just as tiny bubbles start to form, add a handful of cheese and stir with a wooden spoon. As soon the cheese loses its shape, add another handful and stir again. Soon it looks like thin melted cheese, so just keep adding handfuls as soon as the previous softens into the mass. Turn the heat down and keep stirring to keep it from bubbling.

After all the cheese is melted, there is usually some separation of a thinner liquid on top of the mass of cheese, and you want to keep that to a minimum. Instead of stirring vertically around the pot, I use the flat of the spoon to lift the thicker cheese up and over the liquid part to increase the mixing. When you can’t get anymore of the thin liquid to mix in, move the pot to the burner at the center of the table and serve immediately.

You don’t need special prongs to dip the bread, just push the pieces onto forks and dip into the thicker cheese at the bottom to coat well. Stir occasionally, and keep the pot hot enough so the cheese stays liquid, but not so it bubbles and burns on the bottom—that’s where the thick pot really helps spread the heat. You may have to take a break and put the pot back on the stove to add heat and stir it again.

There is a theory that you must drink wine with fondue. The cheese is very greasy, and the alcohol helps keep it in suspension. Drinking water will cause the solids to separate in your stomach and make it hard to digest. That’s the theory at least, I haven’t tried to disprove it, and I ‘ve never been sick.

When you get to the bottom of the pot, there will be some thick cheese stuck to the bottom, the hotter your burner, the harder the crust will be. If you’re still hungry, put the pot back on the stove to get even heat, and crack an egg or two over the cheese. Stir in a little and then let it cook. Scoop out and serve with the remaining bread.

Finally, don’t try to clean out the fondue pot, just fill with water and let soak overnight.

PS: Costco and some of the grocery stores sell the pre-made fondue that comes in a pouch in a box. You just heat and serve, and it is usually made from authentic Swiss cheese, so it is fairly good if you don’t want to make the recipe from scratch.

PPS: I make no apologies for that cheesy pun in the title. The right combination of cheese, wine and bread in communion with good friends and maybe the right music can be nearly a religious experience for me.

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