Fondue or die

I can remember with cut-glass clarity the most extreme consumption I’ve ever subjected my body to. Early contenders include the 13 slices of pizza I ate as a child and the all-you-can-eat buffets in vast hotel dining rooms that I hungrily re-re- and re-visited nightly as a teenager. Close runners-up comprise the six-month homesickness-induced binge that was my gap-year work experience placement, and almost every Christmas of my life. America, the continent, I remember as a blur of physically exhausting confrontations with mega-meals – I emerged from the other end of that trip a changed woman, mechanically topping up my stomach to the very brim every time my body contrived to create a little bit of room in there. But things never really got beyond uncomfortable in the States. No: it was in France that I went a forkful too far and where stomach rupture loomed as a near-inevitable end to my evening. And the perpetrator? Fondue.

The thing about melted cheese is that it’s the stealth plane of food. It slides into the gut undetected and lurks behind your stomach walls, trying to pass unnoticed. It’s saltily and oozily moreish, and cunningly surrounds itself with an array of tempting tart and tangy crudité accomplices, the better to disguise its richness. So you dip into the cheese, mix things up with a juicy gherkin, return cravenly to the cheese, try a crisp radish, dip another radish into the cheese… and before you know it, you’ve slumped to the floor drenched in sweat and are clawing at your distended belly, while your red-faced friend asks, ‘Excusez-moi, est-ce qu’il y a un hôpital près d’ici?’.

Rewind to the start of the story: my brother had come to visit me in Toulouse, and he agreed to tag along to this, the sensitive gluttons’ next gastronomic adventure. We took our seats and chose our poison – mine was to be a raclette.

When you think about it, raclette is a pretty off-putting concept. As a dish, it has none of the culinary swagger of the Swiss fondue, a blend of specially-chosen simmering cheeses laced with alcohol. It’s just a huge round of cheese, the size of a tractor wheel, that’s cut in half, secured in one of those contraptions used for torture during the La Révolution and heated at the business end until the cheese is ready to scrape onto your plate. Now, since I was almost paralysed after my date with the cheese wheel and hardly made a dent in it, I’m guessing that most normal people leave the majority of theirs intact. So what then? It’s wheeled away from the table, detained in storage until the next customer comes along, then given a quick going over with a gob of spit and a wet hanky, reharnessed, and returned to the dining room. (I imagine.)

Anyway, off I went with my raclette, chatting and scraping and gorging and dipping and trying my friends’ fondues, then chatting and swallowing and scraping and dipping and chewing and scraping and scraping and scraping and chewing some more. Bread and gherkins and carrots and radishes and ham and more gherkins were brought to the table. And still I ate. At one point I think I actually intended to finish the cheese, or die trying. But eventually, after what seemed like hours of consumption, I slipped into a dairy-induced coma, goggle-eyed and tongue lolling – only to be hurriedly revived by my mortified brother.

OK, so I exaggerate slightly. But as I swallowed my last mouthful and heaved myself into a vaguely upright position to leave the restaurant, I realised that food oblivion was nearing. I could only shuffle along the pavement, gasping and leaning heavily on my poor brother for support.

‘I think I’m having a heart attack,’ I groaned at one point. ‘You’re ridiculous,’ hissed my brother, ‘why did you have to eat so much?’

To say that progress back to my bedsit a mere 500m away was slow would be an understatement: frankly, it would have been quicker to let the earth’s tectonic plates take their course and inch my digs towards me. My stomach was so stretched with food that I was hunched like an octogenerian; my friends were making that pre-wince face people do when some balloon fancier gets too close to a particularly full specimen.  Just getting to the building was an epic struggle. Then: the horror of the stairs. Finally, I made it to my room and tried to lay down on the bed.

It was no use – my skin was pulled so tightly around the watermelon of my stomach that I checked for stretch marks the following day. I couldn’t fully extend myself, so there was nothing for it but to sit out my self-imposed cheese siege. I propped myself up with cushions with acute self-pity, ignored the disdainful looks from my long-suffering brother, and waited for the pain to subside.

 I’d like to say that I learnt my lesson that night and never willfully stuffed myself again. Apart from the fact that I can’t, because it’s not true: I’m a glutton for punishment. No, scratch that: I’m just a glutton. Over the years I have tried to change my style of eating from the borderline substance abuse that was the Fondue Incident to a more dainty magpie-style form of all-encompassing greed. And I’ve finally learnt to read the signs of the onset of Full Capacity. 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