How Do You Do, Fondue?
After dusting the light snow from our shoes and jackets, we stepped into a tiny waiting room covered from floor to ceiling in red carpeting. Pushing the heavy velvet curtains aside, an older lady with glasses a little too big for her face and a smile as warm as the room we were now in showed us to our table: a nice little corner booth underneath a street-level window.
The restaurant Whymper-Stube used to be connected to the Hotel Monte Rosa, and for some time was used as the dining room of the Seiler family. Catharina Seiler-Cathrein, daughter of the governor of Brig, is considered a pioneer of the tourist resort of Zermatt.
However, the restaurant itself is named after Edward Whymper, who in the summer of 1865 became the first person to reach the summit of the Matterhorn. Unlike us, who observed it from the bottom. In the winter.
The room was rustic and cozy, decorated with multiple artistic interpretations of the Matterhorn, a few lingering Christmas decorations, and several candles and lamps, one of which went out when JC unplugged it to charge his phone.
I only pretended to look at the menu, since I already knew I’d be getting Raclette and hopefully stealing some of my cousin’s fondue.
The server, who looked so similar to our hostess I for a second thought they were the same person, quickly picked up on our Spanish and kindly took our orders accordingly, and the rest of the night continued in a mix of German, French, and Spanish.
The Raclette was out quickly, with the fondue following close behind. Before I could dig in, though, I had a quick Fondue etiquette course: The pot is called a caquelon, the heater is a rechaud, you’re supposed to swirl around whatever’s on your fork so the cheese doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot, and if you drop something into the caquelon, you get punished.
The Raclette, which comes from the French-Swiss verb racler (scrape), was served with potatoes, cornichons, pickled onions, and a dab of homemade apricot jam with very little sugar. Instead of being scraped at the table (which seems to be either an elaborate party trick or something usually reserved for larger groups), the crispy-on-the-edges, melty-in-the-middle, mildly pungent slice of cheese is brought out already on the plate.
I finished quickly, and I must have been staring at my cousin’s breadbasket a little too intently because, with a plunk and a chuckle, there were now 4 chunks of bread on my plate.
At some point amid my third and his twentieth, we’re lazily swirling our forks trying to pick up the last bits of the stringy, barely salty but very savory mix of Gruyère, Emmental, and probably Appenzeller. In that moment, it was so easy to understand the appeal of fondue both as a social gathering and a culinary treat. Great ingredients brought together in an extremely simple preparation, and a wildly entertaining serving process lets you enjoy the company and go on for as long as you have space in your stomach.
And speaking of room for more, for dessert, we ordered a house (and regional, or so my aunt says) specialty – meringues with whipped cream, crumbled pistachio, served over vanilla ice cream with a cherry on top.
Despite my initial skepticism – after all, how different can these variations of dairy and sugar be?- I was pleasantly surprised to find that the whipped cream had no sugar, and the meringue melted nicely into it. The ice cream tasted strongly of vanilla bean, and the pistachios would show up whenever the sweetness became too much.
Outside, the sun had set and the remaining Christmas lights shone on the icy pavement. The table they’d set up outside to lure in customers like me looked especially inviting.
I agree – every day should be Fondue Day.