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Fondue heats up the night of love

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Updated: March 14, 2013 6:10AM

Along the Rhone in Geneva, Switzerland, there’s an aging bathhouse called Bains des Paquis.

Every winter, the baths transform into a simple restaurant with one main dish: cheese fondue. Dining there, we saw lots of groups and many couples because fondue is a shared meal.

“Fondue” came into the language in the 17th century to mean, specifically, bread dipped into hot cheese. In the 1950s, that term started to be applied to foods other than bread and cheese, such as strawberries and chocolate, vegetables and oil. What followed were times of fondue mania: everyone on the block seemed to have brightly colored fondue sets.

By the late ’70s-early ’80s, alas, those fondue pots and long forks were gathering dust at garage sales everywhere.

But fondue has never fallen out of favor at Geja’s (340 W. Armitage), where for about a half century this quintessentially Swiss meal has been synonymous with romance and not just on Valentine’s Day.

Why’s fondue romantic? Consider the scenario: it’s cold outside; the diners lean close, head-to-head, over a flickering flame, doing something together for maybe the first time, sharing warm food in low light as a guitarist strums in the background.

Kirby Matthews, Geja’s general manager, told us his restaurant is either “the best place for a first date or the worst. It’s the best because,” as Matthews explains, “we get the food out there quickly and you’re doing something, you’re preparing the food, so there are no awkward silences.”

Geja’s also may be the worst place for a first date because the communal experience of eating fondue could fool people into thinking “the chemistry is right.”

“But then they go somewhere else to eat,” explains Matthews, “and it’s not the same. They discover there was never any chemistry. It was just the fondue!”

The ultimate show of fondue-related romance, I learned at Bains des Paquis, is to offer your beloved the caramelized residue on the bottom of the empty fondue pan.

Called “la Religieuse” (perhaps after the nuns who ate this morsel after the priests had eaten), this twisted shred of cheese makes for a special kind of Valentine’s gift.

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer and contributor to WBEZ (91.5 FM) and E-mail

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