Food and Drink: A la recherche du temps fondu: It's truly a dinner to forget. Sadly, Rosie Millard remembered

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'Well, I always thought fondue sets were fun,' I said defensively to my friend Alison, with regard to my lovely new fondue set complete with sweet little forks bearing plastic multicoloured handles. 'A fondue set?' she shrieked. 'How couple-ish, how ghastly, how Seventies]'

Her critique of that Swiss- Austrian culinary invention, sadly, was echoed by all my other friends. So I decided to make a virtue of irredeemable kitschness, and hold a Seventies fondue party.

'Have a meat one,' said Pip, my husband. 'No one was a veggie in the Seventies. I'll call my mother for some dips - she was always giving fondue parties.'

I chose the date and invited eight game spirits. 'Dress up in Seventies gear, just for a laugh,' I said hurriedly to everyone. I was anxious not to appear as if I was going to use my fondue set for a serious dinner party.

Pip's mother was on the phone in an instant, dictating authentic dip recipes with enthusiasm. It transpired that the overall tone of the classic Seventies fondue dip is unsubtlety. 'Lots of salad cream,' she advised, 'and pickled onions with olives. Oh, and curry sauce.'

I raided my food cupboards and fridge doubtfully, and fruitlessly. However, in the recesses of my local Sainsbury's, there was true fondue fodder: vast jars of pearl onions, curry sauce and salad cream.

Concocting the dips for the meat, which is sizzled by the guests in hot oil, I realised that everyone in the Seventies must have had palates that could have withstood fire, or bucketloads of Heinz. Looking at the array (tomato, gherkin and salad cream, raw onion, olive and capers with chives, and curry with salad cream), I decided we weaklings today had to have something a mite more nouvelle. 'Oh all right,' said Pip, arranging his poncho and drawing CND signs on his cheeks with kohl. 'Allow them some bearnaise sauce.'

So there we were, in Wimbledon, having a Seventies fondue evening. The soundtrack was all Marvin Gaye and Three Degrees; the drinks began with snowballs and Babycham, then graduated to Blue Nun and Lambrusco.

Alison, in flares and a knitted waistcoat, looked rather oddly at Pip, now padding about in leather- thong slippers and poncho. (He is a current affairs journalist and not usually given to such excesses).

The burner of my much-maligned fondue set was lit; its methylated spirit flame danced merrily beneath the lovely little bowl, the cooking oil within bubbling nicely. It was standing on a beautiful oak refectory table on loan from my parents. 'You have to get the oil very, very hot,' Pip advised, and so we had, pouring the meths into the container with gay abandon and turning the flame up to high.

The guests began to arrive. 'Wait for me]' I shouted, still wrestling with false eyelashes in the bathroom while hobbling about on platform boots and hitching up my hotpants. But there was silence from the dining room - followed by an awful sound of hurrying, then stamping feet.

I found the room full of white smoke. Pip was leaping up and down on the floor in his thongs, poncho flapping. The fondue set had tumbled on to my parent's beautiful table, setting light to a cork mat and hurling flames that set fire to the carpet in several places. Meths and boiling oil were everywhere.

About 40 minutes later, once we were able to see through the smoke, we nervously sat down, ignoring the large areas of burnt carpet. The fondue was re-lit, albeit in subdued fashion, and we each grasped a colour-coded fork. Needless to say, we all went for the bearnaise.

ACCORDING to the Swiss Centre in central London, where tables in the restaurant's fondue room incorporate fondue heaters, the dish is as popular as ever. But only the cheese variety: 'Meat fondues don't sell as well, so we just have raclette (cheese fondue) every night. People come from outside London for our cheese fondues,' said a spokesman.

Cheeses From Switzerland, (0295 273444) the British branch of the Swiss Cheese Union, says it no longer rents or sells fondue sets - 'but we do rent out a travelling fondue party'. This goes all over the country and includes an accordionist who plays 'authentic Swiss tunes all night'.

(Photograph omitted)

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