Fondue is far more than a popular treat for tourists in Switzerland—it's a serious business, with every step of the dish's consumption enveloped in ritual and tradition.
The classic version of the national dish is, of course, cheese fondue, which originated in the French-speaking countryside around Geneva in the 1700s. It is prepared in an earthenware pot, called a caquelon, whose interior is rubbed with a clove of garlic. Heated on a small paraffin burner, cheeses are melted and blended in the caquelon. Each region of Switzerland uses a different mix of cheese—Gruyère, Emmenthal, and raclette are most popular—flavored with an alcoholic beverage (most commonly, white wine or kirsch, although some use beer). Into this bubbling, semi-liquid mass, diners dip an array of tasty objects on long forks. Cubes of bread are traditional, but many use chunks of boiled potato or vegetables, garnished with chives, fresh pepper, diced garlic, or raw mushrooms.
Naturally, there are strict rules of behavior. There is no "double-dipping." And if the bread falls off your fork into the pot, a penalty must be paid. Men must buy a bottle of wine for the table, and women must kiss the man on their left (one reason, perhaps, for fondue's ongoing popularity). But however the meal unfolds, every bite is mouth-watering.
In the 1950s, Swiss chefs began to experiment with radical variations. Today, there is meat fondue (fondue borguignonne), where diners dip red meat into boiling oil to sear the exterior to delicious effect. For dessert, there's chocolate fondue, where pieces of fruit, often marinated in Cointreau, are enveloped in melted chocolate (strawberry is lethally good). But cheese fondue remains most common in restaurants.
For the Swiss, the final ritual is to peel up the layer of hardened cheese at the bottom of the pot, which has become like a rich cracker. Known as la religieuse (French for "the nun"), it's a delicious end to a high-cholesterol feast.