The Nun at the Bottom of the Pot

After our marathon of fondue in the Swiss region of Gruyères, I was determined to take a break from melted cheese.  I returned home to Zürich and baked my usual sweet treats and indulged in different chocolates, as is normally the case.  But when we went skiing for the weekend in the French Alps, it was fondue again!  After all, what’s après-ski without fondue?

Skiing, Les Contamines, French Alps

Skiing, Les Contamines, French Alps

Skiing, Les Contamines, French Alps

And so it was, an evening out in Geneva at Café du Soleil, a boisterous bistro-like restaurant downstairs with a more serene room upstairs.  Most of all, known for its fondue.

Cafe du Soleil, Geneva, Switzerland

Two different ambiences, but one aroma for both: cheese!  We followed the crowd and ordered a platter of charcuterie des Grisons to start, followed by a big caquelon (fondue pot) to share.

Cafe du Soleil, Geneva, SwitzerlandCafe du Soleil, Geneva, Switzerland

No shortage of these in the kitchen; I couldn’t help but notice the wall piled high as I passed by.  The red and orange pots in assorted sizes to serve just one or many, stacked up across from the réchauds (burners) – were a fun sight to see.

Cafe du Soleil, Geneva, Switzerland

Cafe du Soleil, Geneva, Switzerland

I can’t say for sure the different types of cheese that made up our fondue.  But I can say that it was truly delicious.  We were given a tall pile of thick slices of bread that we ripped up into pieces and dipped into the pot.  Now, a word of advice: When you think you have twirled your pieces of bread on the long fondue forks for the very last time, already having scraped down the sides of the heavy casserole, rubbing the bread against the bottom until there is nothing else to scrape up, be ready.  Your waiter will come to the table and say to you, “Voulez-vous que je fasse la religieuse?” Even though religieuse means “nun” in French, trust me, just nod your head and say yes.  That pot isn’t quite empty.  He’ll take it away and go into the corner with what looks like a painter’s tool and start banging at the bottom, scraping at it rapidly.

Turns out that there’s a special treat at the very bottom of the fondue pot, a crust of fried cheese.  So while our waiter was busy bringing life to our fondue pot, my table had a debate on where the name came from – religieuse.  For me, that’s a pastry.  I wasn’t quite sure how we went from pastry cream to crispy fondue leftovers.  Guesses at the table were quite creative.  These extra shards are so delicious, it just takes you away, it’s almost a religious experience.  “I got it, I got it,” yelped another friend: it resembles the wafer that the priest hands out at church.  Our waiter admitted that he wasn’t an expert either, coming from Toulouse – it would have been better if we had questions on cassoulet.  Yet he referred to the legend about monks saving the remaining bits of the fondue for the nuns.

Cafe du Soleil, Geneva, SwitzerlandCafe du Soleil, Geneva, Switzerland

While more ideas floated around in our heads, we all stared down at the bottom of the pot, amazed that there was in fact more to eat!  Thin shards of cheese that almost resembled dry pieces of toast.  Hard to describe the taste.  It is simply all the fat that collects at the bottom of a fondue, hardened and dried up.  Doesn’t sound all that appetizing, but for some, it’s their favorite part.  We decided to let the debate end there about the origin of the name.  We had more important things to discuss… like dessert!

Cafe du Soleil, Geneva, SwitzerlandCafe du Soleil, Geneva, Switzerland

Among the ice creams and the profiteroles, the dessert menu also offered Gruyère’s famous meringues with double cream.  For me, it was a delicious bowl of pineapple with chopped basil.  An excellent dessert to follow a fondue – refreshing and light and just sweet enough.  Until I got home to have a piece of chocolate, of course.

At which point I learned about the German term for la religieuse: Grossmutter, which means grandmother!  I figure I’ll leave that one up to your imagination.  And if you have yet another theory about the origin of the term religieuse, please do share!  I’d be curious to know as well if you enjoy eating that little bonus piece of cheese at the bottom…

Cafe du Soleil, Geneva, Switzerland

Café du Soleil
Place du Petit-Saconnex
1209 Geneva

11 Responses to “The Nun at the Bottom of the Pot”

  1. Scribetrotter says:

    Next time you go to the Cafe du Soleil, try their Malakoffs. No one is quite sure where they came from – there are rumours about soldiers coming back from Crimea… when when I was younger you could only find Malakoffs on the Cote Vaudoise, and then only in three villages – Luins, Vinzel and Bursins (also home of very palatable white wines). They’ve now spread throughout the French part of Switzerland (and possibly beyond?)

    What is a Malakoff? Hard to describe… it’s a lump of cheese mixed with… hmmm… possibly flour and other things but it tastes of cheese only. It is then scooped onto a small slice of bread, and the whole thing is greasily deep-fried. The greasy taste is offset by the tiny gherkins (cornichons) and onions that come with it. Usually you order them by twos… if you’re starting, you’ll eat up to six, and a good filling portion is four. Some auberges have unlimited Malakoffs…

    Greasy? You bet. But yummily so!

  2. jk says:

    Now you’ve got me hungry again! 😉
    I didn’t know the crusty cheese at the bottom had a name, now I’m much better informed! And your photos are fabulous, they really add to your narrative – thanks for not being shy in taking shots inside restaurants!

  3. Sarah says:

    I didn’t realize that mini-gherkins were fondue-able. Seems like that would be a weird taste-combination. How was it?

  4. florence says:

    Your pictures are amazing! + the text = We, I, can almost taste the fondue…
    And now, if i’m not wrong, is this the THIRD fondue you ate WITHOUT me?!?

  5. Kerrin says:

    Scribetrotter, ok I’m ready to go back to Cafe du Soleil !! Un Malakoff, s’il vous plait! But ooh boy, better go during this cold weather, not quite the light summer dish! 😉 Thanks so much for the great history, what a unique dish indeed. I started playing around on the internet, and found an old thread on Chowhound about it:

    jk, thanks for the kudos on the photos. I am still rather shy about taking out my camera in restaurants. Totally depends on the atmosphere, and especially if the restaurant allows it. I just try to be as discreet as possible and not bother the diners at neighboring tables – my goal: not even let them notice! Golden rule: NEVER use flash!

    Sarah, cornichons are a staple when it comes to fondue and raclette here in Switzerland. Not for dipping, but as an accompaniment. It cuts the richness and heaviness of the dish. Also, the acidity aids in digestion, hence the omnipresence of pickled onions as well – eating a big pot of melted cheese can’t be too easy on the stomach after all!

    Et Florence… oups! 😉 On t’attend pour la 4eme alors ! Promis!!

  6. jk says:

    I’m curious as to your favorite wine/fondue pairings, too! What do you like?

  7. Scribetrotter says:

    I don’t really know how to break this to you… but I’ve this minute returned home from the Cafe du Soleil, where I had my fondue – they do have fondue for one – AND a single little Malakoff on the side… 🙂

    For dessert, some pineapple with basil leaves and sugar syrup, a specialty!

  8. seth says:

    This is the best place in Geneva for Fondue. quality choice. enjoy your site.

  9. Tammie says:

    Oh! Your story and those photographs! You spin a delectable tale my dear.

  10. In Bed with Harold McGee : Madame Fromage says:

    […] I have yet to read Harold’s chapers on seeds, sauces, and eggs. At the moment, I’m lost in a sidebar on Indian milk sweets and the keys to foaming milk for a perfect cappuccino. Let me leave you with my favorite discovery: did you know there is a term for the cheese that darkens at the bottom of a fondue pot? In our family, we always called it the “crackle,” and we fought over it like bandits. Harold has a better term: religieuse. […]

  11. Tea for two and cheese for three | BS in the Midwest says:

    […] time, so she was like our culinary tour guide, explaining some of their traditions there, like the “nun’s cap” in the bottom of the pot, which is basically a disc of crusty fried cheese that you scrape off the bottom and divvy up to […]

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