Our latest book over at Cook the Books has been Erica Bauermeister's first novel, The School of Essential Ingredients.
I confess, I was a bit apprehensive about the "first novel" bit. About a million years ago I wrote some reviews for a brilliant magazine called Good Reading, and my heart learned to sink whenever a "first novel" came my way. The vast majority of them would have benefited from a bit more polishing at whatever writer's workshop spawned them. There is a saying that everyone has a book in them, but no one ever said it was readable by other people.
Fortunately The School of Essential Ingredients is not like that. It is, in fact, a very sweet little book. Lillian uses the hard lessons she learned as a child to teach her cooking students about food, and those lessons transform each of their lives.
I very quickly decided that I was going to make fondue, the dish the students make for Valentine's Day at Lillian's cooking school. For one thing, I love it. When I was growing up it was always something our family would have for celebratory meals - so it seems appropriate that this post is going up on my mother's birthday. Happy Birthday Bettina!
But I was also struck by the mention of the hint of nutmeg in the cheese. This was a revelation to me. I love nutmeg, and I use it in almost all cheese dishes and a lot of vegetable dishes (it's wonderful on buttered cabbage) but it had never, ever occurred to me to put it in a fondue.
I followed my usual proportions of wine, gruyere and emmenthaler, leaving the garlic cloves in the wine instead of just rubbing around the caquelon. I didn't dust the cheese with cornflour, I followed the family method of making a cornflour slurry to add towards the end, and I bought a little bottle of kirschwasser to use in that slurry. Then right at the end I seasoned the fondue with a grating of nutmeg and some black pepper. I served it with cubes of crusty dark sourdough bread (I find baguette goes too pappy in the hot cheese) and pickled shallots.
This was definitely the best fondue I have ever made. It is amazing how much difference a little nutmeg and a little kirschwasser make to the flavour. And, as Lillian's students discovered, fondues bring people together and encourage intimacy. Sharing a meal from the same pot is a very cozy way to eat, and you can't help but lean together and chat as you swirl your cubes of bread in the thick molten cheese.