GENEVA (AFP) — As Switzerland contends with one of the worst coronavirus surges in Europe, the Swiss are gripped by one melting-hot question: is it still safe to share a fondue?
The beloved Swiss national dish consists of cheese melted down with white wine in a "caquelon" pot heated by an open flame.
By tradition, Swiss cheese fondue is eaten by dipping in bread with long-handled forks, with several friends or relatives joining in and sharing the same pot.
But can the convivial Swiss culinary experience still be done safely in the midst of a pandemic?
Internet sages are piling in on the hot topic. "Eat your fondue with a fishing rod," reads one suggestion for maintaining physical distancing.
Another — with a touch more realism — proposes: "Each guest takes two forks and a knife, and it's fixed: one fork to dip in the fondue, the knife to help remove the bread and the second fork to eat it."
The press has called experts to the rescue, even dragging in Geneva's celebrated infectious disease specialist Didier Pittet.
"A risk linked to fondue? Certainly not," said the man considered the godfather of alcohol-based hand rub.
Switzerland Cheese Marketing is also making reassuring noises.
The industry body insists it has studied the question closely and has concluded: "The risk of contracting Covid-19 while enjoying a fondue with other diners is negligible."
Put simply by professor Christian Ruef, a Zurich-based infectious disease specialist: "In the fondue pot, the cheese reaches a sufficient temperature to kill any virus."
Whether it's a classic half-and-half mix of Vacherin and Gruyere cheeses, or a fondue done with tomatoes, morels or other variations, dipping in and eating therefore presents no risk in itself.
However, Ruef recommended sticking to small groups, or even a fondue just for two.
"The problem arises if you are seated together in a small space for an evening, and are talking loudly, laughing or even singing," he said.
"These are ideal conditions for spreading the virus."
Gerald Bongioanni, manager of Geneva's historic Cafe du Soleil, which normally serves up to 300 fondues a day during winter, put it succinctly: "The risk is not in the fondue pot but in the gathering."
Cheesy love story
Each region of Switzerland has its own favorite fondue cheese, be it Vacherin, Gruyere, Emmental or Comte.
The iconic Swiss dish rose to international fame and popularity since representing the country at the 1939-40 World's Fair in New York.
While the first Swiss fondue recipes date back to the 17th century, fondue truly established itself as a national dish in the 1950s, when the famously neutral country's army put it in its cookbook.
Even though fondues can be enjoyed at home or on an Alpine mountainside thanks to mass-produced kits and ready-to-use mixes, sharing a fondue with friends in a restaurant remains the heart of Swiss social life.
But now restaurants are shut in many parts of the country and the 10th Fondue Festival, which was to be held on October 31, was canceled because of the restrictions on large gatherings.
Could Covid-19 add fondue to its list of victims?
"Absolutely not!" insisted Arnaud Favre, president of Les Compagnons du Caquelon, which runs the festival.
"The Swiss national dish, as well as the love that all Swiss have for cheese, are stronger than any health measures," he told AFP.
"Fondue mix sales have gone up by 10% since the start of the year. It goes to show that the restrictions have reinforced conviviality between family and friends," he said.
Lorenz Hirt, head of the Swiss Fondue Cheese Industry Association, also insisted he had "no worries", saying spring sales figures this year were even higher than in 2019.
Indeed, Bertrand Gabioud, co-manager of La Fromatheque cheese boutique in Martigny, reckons fondue could be just the thing to help see the nation through the pandemic.
"Fondue is a Covid-compatible dish which lends itself very well to the current situation because we greatly need good humor and conviviality," he told AFP.
"It's the dish par excellence to get through these times."
by Agnès PEDRERO
© Agence France-Presse