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Fondue as served in a restaurant in Geneva (Cinda Chavich for The Globe and Mail/Cinda Chavich for The Globe and Mail)
Fondue as served in a restaurant in Geneva (Cinda Chavich for The Globe and Mail/Cinda Chavich for The Globe and Mail)

Searching for the perfect fondue in Switzerland Add to ...

The restaurant is underground, below the Edelweiss Hotel lobby, perhaps because any self-respecting Genevois would rather keep these stereotypes from public view. Once the yodelling starts, it's hard to hide the fact that this place has all the Swiss clichés covered - and the cheesier, the better. From stuffed Saint Bernard plush toys to happy wanderers serenading diners with a The Sound of Music medley rung out on tinkling cowbells, it doesn't get much kitschier than this.

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It's the standard stop for busloads of visiting tourists and conventioneers, and tonight it's crammed with doctors dunking bread in pots of cheese and lining up for a chance to press their lips against the soggy mouthpiece of the 12-foot alpenhorn propped across the stage.

It's the full-on Swiss alpine experience recreated in the centre of this suave business and banking city. I've even received my official certificate of fondue cookery, after ducking into the kitchen to watch a chef quickly melt shredded cheese into a slurry of wine and potato starch.

But that's why we're here: for the cheese. It's on the menu almost everywhere, scraped in gooey masses off wheels of melting raclette, bubbling atop cast iron pans of fried potato rosti, broiled on cheese toasts, and served in classic macaroni and cheese.

And the piping hot enameled orange pots delivered to the table at the Edelweiss actually do offer a delicious example of this Swiss dish, filled with a rich medley of cheeses from every corner of the country. The Gruyère, Vacherin, Tilsit, Emmenthal, Appenzeller and Corolle de Gruyère each brings its own character to the mix, and with pickles, cold cuts and crisp Swiss white wine, we're soon more than sated.

The great Gruyère that forms the nice, nutty background to any perfect pot of fondue comes from a little mountain town in the nearby canton of Fribourg and I hop a train to investigate.

Our light-filled dome car is a mix of locals in transit and gawking tourists taking in the stunning mountain scenery. The track loops up from Vevey and around the east end of sparkling Lake Geneva, circling the rooftops of posh Montreaux, and it's not long before we're climbing through deep valleys dotted with dairy cows. At one of the quaint alpine stations, a couple of gangly boys with backpacks stuffed with climbing ropes get off for a day's recreation.

We switch trains, lured by the promise of cheese.

Gruyères is a busy tourist town, and the first stop is La Maison du Gruyère, a co-operative dairy making cheese with milk delivered from some of the 3,200 milk-producing farms in the region. It's also a working museum and visitors can watch the cheese-making and aging process through picture windows while listening to a running commentary (in several languages) on a hand-held phone. Gruyere is made here twice a day, when milk deliveries arrive and, in the temperature-controlled aging cellar, a robot roams the aisles to turn the 7,000 massive wheels on schedule.

We learn all about the history of Gruyère, an AOC cheese - controlled appellation of origin product - made in 200 cheese dairies in Le Gruyères region, where cows wander the fields with their cow-bells ringing like wind chimes. The most coveted cheese is the Alpage, made from the milk collected in the summer when the cows are in the highest alpine pastures, with its hints of sweet wild flowers and herbs.

You can buy it in the gift store where a big cheese counter features Gruyère and other Swiss cheeses, andevery kind of fondue pot, raclette machine, or otherwise cheesy souvenir you can imagine.

You can also hop on the Fondue Train - an historic little train that runs from Bulle to Montbovon several times every weekend - for a fondue tasting excursion. More adventurous foodies can get a map of the hiking trails around Gruyères (www.la-gruyere.ch) and climb in warmer months through green alpine pastures, past pretty chalets, on a two-hour hike up to see how cheeses were made before modern automation took over.

Or just head to the local Musee Gruérien in Bulle, where a diorama approximates the process. We opt for a walk up to the walled medieval town of Gruyères, with its small inns, restaurants and tidy castle. It's a tourist trap though we find some interesting corners, from the surreal museum and bar created by avant-garde artist H.R. Giger (he won an Academy Award for his design work on Alien, and the bar's interior isn't far off that mark), to the sweeping views across the valley from the castle gardens.

But it's really all about the cows - and the milk - here in the canton of Fribourg. At the annual Désalpes parties that celebrate the herds descending from their summer pastures, the best bovine milk producer is crowned the grand dame of the cows and paraded through town bedecked in flowers. You'll see the scene depicted in the local folk art that still decorates some farmhouses - paintings of a family's black (or caramel) and white dairy cows, switching back down the slopes to the farm.

On an early September afternoon we only find a few young Holsteins in the fields. They come to the fence, curious, their individual bells clanging melodically when we approach. Some day their rich milk will be made into the nutty Gruyère that was bubbling atop the potato and bacon rosti I dug out of a hot cast iron frying pan for lunch, the double cream poured over my Swiss meringue dessert, and those pots of fondue the raucous locals share with us at Le Fribourgeois café.

 

Closer to home

Banff may be one of the best places to indulge your fondue fantasies. Thanks to all the Swiss mountaineers who first travelled here to guide climbers up unconquered peaks in 1897, fondue remains a Rocky Mountain tradition. Try it at:

The Grizzly House

All fondue, all the time - any kind of cheese, poultry or protein, from beef and shellfish to rattlesnake and shark. www.banffgrizzlyhouse.com

Fairmont Banff Springs

Get a table in front of the fire at the Waldhaus, the cozy former golf clubhouse behind the hotel, for cheese or beef, even chocolate, fondue. www.fairmont.com/banffsprings/GuestServices/Restaurants/WaldhausRestaurant.htm

Ticino

This is a Banff institution, where the chef's from Appenzell and the fondue is made just as it is in the southern canton of Switzerland. www.ticinorestaurant.com

Bison Bistro

From classic fondue with three Swiss cheeses to goat cheese fondue, this contemporary restaurant specializes in local ingredients, charcuterie and fine cheese. www.thebison.ca

Want the real Swiss fondue experience?

Tips on where to stay and dine

Hotel Alpesgruyere

Small but serviceable rooms in the heart of the busy little alpine town of Bulle. www.alpesgruyere.ch

Café Le Fribourgeois

A classic family restaurant for fondue and other local specialties in Bulle. 12 Place des Alpes, Bulle

Monsieur Blanc

At this bakery and tearoom you'll find deep yellow saffron bread, a specialty of the area, served with moutarde de benichon, a sweet and sour reduction of apples and pears. 5 Avenue de la Gare, Bulle

La Fleur de Lys

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