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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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…