This article originally appeared on VICE France.
This year, March 13th was no ordinary Sunday: It was the day of France’s first-ever National Fondue Championship, launched by cheesemaking master Dominique Bouchait, the owner of the cheese company Les Fromagers du Mont-Royal and one of the winners of the best craftsmen in France awards in 2011. The event took place in Montréjeau, a cute town nestled in the French Pyrenees an hour away from the southern city of Toulouse.
When I think fondue, I think of an overpriced winter meal, preferably savoured at the bottom of a ski slope somewhere in the Alps. But fondue’s appeal reaches much further than that. “Fondue is a big party,” Bouchait said. “People eat it all over the world, and not just during the winter.” This year’s contest reflected the dish’s global appeal, with competitors flocking in from Belgium, Switzerland and even Brazil.
Liberté, égalité, cheesité.
As a big fan of melted cheese, I found it quite hard to sleep on the night before the event, especially since I was asked to be an amateur judge for the first qualifications round. Needless to say, I accepted. Finally, a chance to make my parents proud.
I woke up way too early for a Sunday and met up with my fellow judges at 9AM at a reception hall in Montréjeau. You’d think that the smell of melted cheese early in the morning would be pretty disgusting but no, not even one bit. It was at that moment that I realised the day would be nothing but a delightful celebration of my taste buds. Finally, I could relax. Of course, the small glass of Japanese whiskey offered to us by the team of organisers also helped put us all in an appropriately merry mood.
As the 21 pairs of competitors arrived, the other jury members and I received our instructions and judging cards. Our job was to rate the fondues from one to ten based on six criteria – taste, flavour and smell, visual appearance, texture, how easy it was to recognise the ingredients and how hygienic the preparation and presentation were.
OUR VERY SERIOUS GRADING SHEET FOR THE FIRST QUALIFICATION ROUND.
The rest of the jury was made up by professionals, including food writers and other former craftsmen of the year. As an amateur, my main concern was trying to be as fair as possible and not giving everyone a ten just because I was happy to be there.
After receiving our cards, we walked among the first round of ten contestants. Since there was also a prize for presentation, some of them put on a show, grating their Gruyère cheese by hand – or shirtless (or both). It was cute and all, but really, that wasn’t what we were there for.
ONE OF THE SHOWIER COMPETITORS WORKING HIS GRATER.
Some of the contestants went for traditional recipes. Others were more innovative. A special shout-out goes to the pair of local amateurs who presented their Japanese-inspired fondue featuring wasabi and Japanese whiskey. Yep, seemed dodgy to me too at first – and yet, it blew everyone else out of the water in the qualifying round, so much so that I gave them a 55 out of 60.
We were also blown away by the Brazilians’ fondue made with zebu cow cheese and cachaça, a Brazilian sugar cane spirit. I did dock them a few hygiene points for their big feather headdresses, which, despite their lovely (yet perhaps questionable) touch, did gross me out a little next to food.
THE BRAZILIAN TEAM, IN ALL THEIR FEATHERED GLORY. PHOTO: ANTOINE LOHÉAC
Some fondues were creamy, others crumbly. Some had a very pronounced taste, others were subtler, like the one flavoured with nut-infused wine. Suffice it to say, picking a winner was no easy task. And even though I’d resolved to be impartial but nice, I couldn’t help but give a bad hygiene mark to the French contestant who sampled his fondue with his finger before serving it to us.
The author living his best life. Photo: Antoine Lohéac
During the first elimination, the room filled up with more than 800 spectators ready to enjoy fondues together with the biggest all-you-can-eat charcuterie buffet I’d ever seen, not to mention the marvellously stocked bar. The organisers went above and beyond to spoil the audience, supplying them with 450 kg of bread, 220 kg of charcuterie, 300 kg of cheese, 500 bottles of wine and 250 large beer bottles – a feast fit for Obelix.
THE PUBLIC GOT TO SIT DOWN AND ENJOY FONDUE AROUND LONG TABLES.
SPECTATORS WERE GIVEN FONDUE IN A BREAD BOWL.
The feast was followed by the second part of the championship, presided over by the professionals in the jury. Almost all my favourites made it, save for a lovely team from the Lorraine region who had travelled nine hours by car for the occasion. Even so, they were thrilled to have participated.
The author making tough decisions. Photo: Antoine Lohéac
Meanwhile, we judges took the opportunity to re-sample everything. This time around, the Japanese fondue tasted less than perfect; maybe the novelty had worn off. Ultimately, there were a few clear standouts – a fondue infused with Chartreuse herbal liqueur, another one made with Belgian beer, and one created by a talented duo from central France with Gentian liqueur, a herbal aperitif.
Sure enough, the Gentian team ended up taking the first-ever French fondue championship gold medal – thoroughly deserved, especially since they weren’t professional cheesemakers like many of the other contestants. The Chartreuse fondue came in second place and the Brazilians took the bronze. All the medalists automatically qualified for the next World Fondue Championship, which will take place in Switzerland in November 2023. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Scroll down to see more photos of the event:
THE MAKING OF THE DELICIOUS JAPANESE-INSPIRED FONDUE.
Kids making a paquito, a traditional local performance where people sit in a row and pass each participant over their heads to the rhythm of regional music.
THE BRUSSELS TEAM AND THEIR BELGIAN BEER FONDUE.
CUTTING A BRAZILIAN CHEESE WITH A WIRE TOOL.
WONDERFUL CHEESE FROM THE LORRAINE REGION.
YES, THERE WAS EVEN A “SURF N’ TURF” FONDUE, COMBINING SEAFOOD AND CHEESE, COURTESY OF AN ANONYMOUS FISHMONGER AND FELLOW CRAFTSMAN OF THE YEAR WINNER.
THE SWISS TEAM WITH THEIR DELICIOUS FONDUE, MADE WITH A TOUCH OF TÊTE DE MOINE CHEESE.
THE CHARTREUSE TEAM, AS TALENTED AS DEVOTED TO THEIR CRAFT.
THIS WAS A STRICTLY NO WASTE EVENT. AFTER THE JUDGES MADE THE ROUNDS, THE PUBLIC ALSO GOT TO TASTE THE COMPETING FONDUES, SITTING ATOP FONDUE PEDESTALS.
THE TEAM FROM NÎMES WITH THEIR HERBES-DE-PROVENCE-INFUSED FONDUE.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP FELT A BIT LIKE MISS FRANCE, CHEESE EDITION. PHOTO: ANTOINE LOHÉAC
THE GENTIAN LIQUEUR TEAM, FACING THE JURY THAT WOULD SOON AWARD THEM WITH THE GOLD MEDAL.