The Best Fondue

The best fondue in the world is served in a small hut overlooking the Aletsch Glacier in the Bernese Alps. This fact, for which I can provide no evidence outside of my own experience, remains undeniably true. No other fondue tastes of the sun beating through the thin summer air or smells of the granite and limestone rocks upon which the hut has been placed. Certainly, no other fondue has the majestic appearance of the Mönch or the Jungfrau or the Eiger, all looming large to the north. Most compelling of all, no other fondue carries the seismic sounds of the Earth itself being split and shaped by a river of ice rushing and crashing between the peaks at 0.00001mph.1

I was 11 the one and only time I ate this most sensory of meals. In fact, I was 11 years, 9 months and 16 days. I know this because of the metadata of the photo I took at the glacier, (specifically, at 13.40). Without this photo, and many of the others I took on the holiday that my Dad and I called 'Tealls on Tour', I would have far fewer memories of the trip. I rely on the pictures and videos I have taken, (currently just three shy of 17,000 according to my photos app), to substitute for real memories as my brain seems woefully inept at recalling much before the age of 15. Technology has given my generation a superpower. Through minds constructed of wires and silicone, using streams of 1's and 0's to replace synaptic transmission, we have the ability to play back moments, days, years of our lives that would otherwise have been lost. First steps, first dates, first house, third pint of the night, it’s all there to scroll through at a moment’s notice. It's miraculous, it's a wonder of technology, it's beyond comprehension for my Nanna.

It's problematic.

The house in which I spent my first 19 years had a lounge that stretched across the entire front, (imaginatively, we called it the Front Room). Long and narrow, there was no way of arranging the furniture so chairs faced chairs, so people faced people or, more importantly, so chairs and their attached people faced the TV. Instead, our three piece suite was arranged with one armchair at the end of the room, strictly speaking facing the screen but 15ft away from it so as to make watching Ground Force more of an eye test than an enjoyable way to spend a Friday evening. The settee and second armchair sat perpendicular to the first, with their backs against the outside wall. This last armchair formed a 90º angle with the TV and so commanded the worst view as a portion of the screen was always cut off by the cabinet in which the television was housed. Given my parents bought the house before I was born, I was last to claim a spot and so the second armchair was mine. This meant I spent as much time looking at the wall opposite as I did the TV itself. On this wall was our mantelpiece and on the mantelpiece, when not obscured by cards, was a row of photos in a variety of frames. One of these pictures had been taken in the back garden of a house on the Isle of Mann. The setting of my earliest memory.

The sun is shining, I'm 4, maybe 5, and wearing the carefully colour matched dungarees and T-shirt combo Mum has picked out for me, (she regularly assures me that my pants and socks always used to match as well – I'm not quite sure why this a source of such pride to her, but no description of my childhood is ever finished without this addendum). I'm running down the slight hill from the back of the garden towards the house. It's all grass with a few bushes and flowers on either side. I want to go inside and watch Cartoon Network, a station which we don't have at home. I hadn't put shoes on before coming outside and there is a strange tickley sensation between my toes as blades of grass poke through the fabric of my socks as I run.

The house belonged to my Grandad. I don't recall much about him other than one occasion when I sat on his lap in a rocking chair looking for bugs in his long, white beard, (imaginatively, he was always known as Grandad with a beard). He died when I was five and so having some form of connection with him through remembering his house and his Cartoon Network has always felt important.

Except, apparently, I don't.

Except, I do.

When I talked to Mum about this moment, as we packed up the frames in the Front Room before moving away from what was, at the time, the only home I'd ever known, she told me all the details were correct, but they didn't fit together. I did wear those clothes, that is what the garden looked like and the TV really did get Cartoon Network, but I never ran through that garden wearing those clothes to watch those cartoons. The house had been sold before she'd bought the dungarees and I'd only discovered Cartoon Network the last time we visited and that was because the weather was so awful I couldn't play outside. In my head, that memory is as real as any other, it is more real than many which have become hazy and blurred over time, it is certainly more meaningful. It just didn't happen.

A few weeks later as we unpacked a different set of photos in the new house, I found a picture of me wearing the same dungarees and T-shirt I thought I'd been wearing on the Isle of Mann. It had been taken in Disneyland Paris. Mum told me this photo had once been placed on an old cabinet that hadn't participated in the move due to the copious amounts of woodworm that had infested its feet and half the draws, but had once sat just to my right in our old Front Room. From two photos, neither of which I'd ever paid particular attention and had only ever noticed because of furniture induced TV watching difficulties, my mind had constructed its own false memory. The only part that truly belongs to me is watching Cartoon Network.

I think it stuck with me because of the excitement of being able to watch cartoons I didn't get to see at home, and to younger me, that was a pretty big deal. However, I don’t think it was the specific cartoons themselves that were memorable, but the uniqueness of the experience. To me, this is proved by the fact that the only part I really remember is the part I have no photo of.

I don’t have a photo of my fondue either.

The hut in which the fondue was made, along with the adjacent viewing platform for the glacier, are found on a ridge of the Bettmerhorn called the Bettmergrat. To reach this, Dad and I travelled by cable car from Betten on the valley floor to Bettmeralp, a small and trafficless municipality on the southern slope of the mountain. From there, we took a télécabine from Bettmeralp to the summit station itself.2 Sitting at 2647m above sea level, it is close to the maximum height at which Swiss Mountain rescue helicopters can safely hover.3 At this altitude, despite the whole area being a tourist magnet with old ladies using frames and young children falling asleep on the backs' of their fathers, you can feel the air is noticeably thinner, hence the difficulties for helicopters. This is especially true on a summer’s day as air density and temperature share an inverse relationship. As you walk around, you are aware of the difference, or at least, your body unconsciously reacts to it and it is a sensation that is necessarily missing as I look through my pictures. Photos capture a single moment, they are still. They are dead. Videos improve on this by allowing us to remember the movement and the sounds, but they are still sensorially deprived. My memory can retain much more, not necessarily in technicolor detail and certainly without the metadata, (I have no idea as to the exact time that I ate the fondue), but it has so much more depth all the same.

My relationship with my photos is paradoxical. Without them, I wouldn't remember nearly as much, but I worry that by being so reliant on them, the memories I do have are being altered; flattened into singular temporal lumps. As de Certeau once said in The Practice of Everyday Life, "Memories tie us to that place […] The memorable is that which can be dreamed about a place".4 Dreams, like memories, are more than snap shots, they take you back to not just a time but a specific location, with all the feelings and sensory experiences attached to it. My photo of the Wasenhorn, (12.25), just doesn't do that, as much as I treasure the picture.

W.G. Sebald, who wrote about place that was really memory, once talked about his own love for old photos:

The older pictures have an uncanny ability of suggesting that there is another world where the departed are. A black-and-white photograph is a document of absence, and is almost curiously metaphysical. I have always hoarded them. They represent a sense of otherness. The figures in photographs have been muted, and they stare out at you as if they are asking for a chance to say something.5

There is also an inherent paradox in what Sebald says. For him, photographs have the ability to give some form of life, some form of presence, to those who have died by way of their image, captured in a single moment on a roll of film. They may not be back amongst the living, but they still exist somewhere. However, they are also othered, "muted". They lack the vibrancy of life and exist as if in "another world". The pictures I took in Switzerland may have been captured in colour by a digital sensor and stored on the silicone of an SD card rather than on a roll of film. They may also have been landscapes, attempts to preserve a little portion of the Alps for me to carry back on the plane, rather than the portraits Sebald hoarded, but I feel the paradox is the same. I wanted to record the majesty of the mountains, (picture of the Mattahorn taken at 12.25), the wonder of a small chapel balancing precariously on the edge of the hillside, (12.11) or the sweeping curve of the Aletsch Glacier itself, (13.40), and visually, I'm still quite pleased with the shots 16 years later. They give me a sense of pleasure because I know that I enjoyed those moments, but they don't make me feel again what I felt at the time. The day and the place feels close, but their vitality has been bleached.

The best fondue in the world is served in a small hut overlooking the Aletsch Glacier in the Bernese Alps. This fact, for which I have provided no evidence outside of my own experience, remains undeniably true. It was a fondue that tasted better because of the beautiful day on which I ate it. It was a fondue that smelt better because it mixed with the ground upon which it was made. It was a fondue that looked better because of the grandeur of my surroundings and it was a fondue that sounded better because of the immense forces of nature being exhibited by the glacier several hundred metres below. My memory of the meal is so wrapped up in the place that I ate it, like warm cheese sticking to bread held on the end of an especially long fork, that the two cannot be separated. I might rely on my photos to recall much of the rest of the trip, but that moment, the one that I look back on most fondly, is stored nowhere but my own grey matter and it is all the better for it.

As to the actual taste or smell or looks or even sound of the fondue, I have no idea. I presume it was pleasantly cheesy.

  1. Notes

    “Photos of the Great Aletsch Glacier,” Pro Natura Center Aletsch, (No date), accessed November 26, 2016, http://www.pronatura-aletsch.ch/great-aletsch-glacier.

  2. “The Bettmerhorn,” MySwissAlps, (September 24, 2016), accessed November 27, 2016, http://www.myswissalps.com/bettmerhorn.
  3. “EC145 Specifications,” Airbus Helicopters, (2016), accessed November 27, 2016, http://airbushelicoptersinc.com/products/EC145-specs.asp.
  4. Michel de Certeau et al., The Practice of Everyday Life, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), pp.108-109. The first part of this quote references an interview with A woman living in the Croix-Rousse quarter in Lyon.
  5. Jonathan White, “Mental Travel and Memory Mapping in Sebald’s Work,” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, 14, no. 5, (December 31, 2012), doi:10.7771/1481-4374.2152.
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