The intersection of art and cheese has always been an area of particular interest for me. Whether it’s the geometric beauty in the cheese plating of Lilith Spencer, the cheese paintings of Mike Geno, the illustrations of Debra Ziss, the fromage-in-miniature clay models of Dylan Stanfield , or most recently the Mike Perry label for Crown Finish Caves, the marriage of the aesthetic and the lactic never ceases to delight and engage, and frequently serves to illuminate characteristics in the cheese that might go unnoticed when we’re too busy consuming the cheese to step back and observe it.
When I heard about an interactive art event that took place at BolteLang gallery in Zurich, Switzerland, and used Fondue as its primary medium (and in primary colors), I was naturally intrigued. A little research made the story more fascinating still, as I discovered that the artist’s name was Claudia Comte and her grandfather had been one of the last traditional Gruyére cheesemakers in the Canton of Vaud. This I had to know more about!
The event engaged the viewers directly, transforming the process of making and eating fondue into a game involving primary colors and palette cards for matching. As the participants collaborated with their fellow guests, swirling cheeses to make their Fondue Moitié-Moitié (meaning “half-half”, 50% Gruyère AOP and 50% Vacherin AOP), added colors and consumed their creations, a pair of alpenhorn players accompanied in the background, while old film footage — shot by Claudia’s father in the 70’s — showed Claudia’s grandfather making Gruyére and Vacherin in the traditional manner.
The food coloring did not alter the flavor, at least in theory, although there is interesting research out there on how color — whether of the food or the container within which it is presented — can alter our subjective experience of flavor. The New Yorker, in “The Illusion of Taste”, delved into this topic.
I recently had the chance to discuss the event with Claudia. We talked art, cheesemaking, Comté vs Gruyére (and the origins of her name), and her plans for future cheese-based events (stay tuned, as Claudia hints at the possibility of bringing such an event to NYC!). Claudia was also kind enough to share her recipe for Fondue with us (food coloring optional).
You can also view the Super8 film, shot by her father, of her Grandfather, Willy Comte, making Gruyére and Vacherin, back in the 1970’s, at Vimeo.com.
Q. What was the concept behind the Fondue event?
The idea was to incorporate the audience into my installation, something I try to do often in my shows, except that here the visitor had to become active in order for the artwork to become a successful work, they became part of an overall composition as they were players, painters and at the same time eating the work in progress as it unfolded, as it was decimated. Mostly the idea was that you were eating colours, primary and secondary colours which became, beyond challenging normal eating habits, an interactive game with your table neighbours, with actual food and having fun while applying yourself to some rules that were given.
Q. Is this the first time you’ve brought cheese and art together?
There is a long tradition in my work practice, since i visit different countries through various artists residencies, I always bring swiss cheese and white wine from the region of Vaud along and invite the local community and friends to a heartfelt fondue. No matter if I am in the summer heat in Rome a few years ago or in Yekaterinburg just recently when i was on a scientific research trip in the Russian Ural Mountain region.
Q. When you’re not using Vacherin and Gruyere as your mediums, how would you describe your art?
Work which is inspired by nature, music, geometry and food, through the eyes of a researcher and cartoon lover, who loves to work with natural materials but also likes to juxtapose them against a very clinical and stringent language of abstraction.
Q. Tell me a little about your family’s history with cheese.
My grandfather was the last cheese maker in the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland doing the Gruyère and the Vacherin Mont d’Or in such an artisanal method. Today he is 90 years old, he stopped producing cheese a long time ago but he still cuts the rind as close as he can, to not lose a millimeter of cheese. My other grandfather was a fisherman on the Lake of Geneva, my father is engineer in land surveying and topography – so you see there is a long tradition in working with the grounds around us. Cheese has been served every day of my life and it is something I cannot live without.
Q. Did you ever help with the cheesemaking when you were younger?
My grandfather continued to work after his retirement age, aiding the fromager from the village. I remember most clearly that I had to go to the creamery every other day with a 5 liters container, on my roller-skates, to fetch the fresh milk for the family.
Q. For American turophiles, Comté is often considered a top European cheese, is that your real surname?
The cheese you know is called Comté with an accent, it’s a french cheese but I much prefer the Swiss Gruyère, I would choose Gruyére over Comté any day, despite the name. I tell you this because some people compare the two cheeses, but there is nothing to compare. My name however is very swiss, its an old name from the region I come from.
Q. Do you have any cheese-themed events planned for the future?
I am planning to conquer the US with my cheese operation. Coming soon to NYC and you will be invited of course!!
Recipe for Claudia Comte’s fondue
Serves: 4 people
400 g Gruyère AOP cheese (grated)
400 g Vacherin Fribourgeois AOP cheese (grated)
1 Clove of garlic
3 dl White wine
15 g Corn starch
Cut the garlic in four pieces. Rub the inside of the fondue pot with the garlic pieces, then leave them in the bottom of the pot.
Mix the two cheeses, the Gruyère and the Vacherin Fribourgeois together, then add the starch and the white wine and leave to melt, stirring constantly. For optimum results move the wooden spoon or spatula in the shape of an 8 when stirring!
Lower the heat and continue stirring until the entire broth is smooth and creamy. Place the pot on a burner in the centre of the table to maintain a steady and warm temperature. Serve with pieces of good bread cut into cubes.
Don’t forget to drink a shot of Kirsch half way through the meal!
(All Photographs courtesy Claudia Comte)