James Hamilton-Paterson, Cooking with Fernet Branca

Plum-purple background. Book title in yellow, blockish, mildly comical font. Author's name in white. In the foreground is a bottle of the beverage named in the title, next to some tomatoes onions; they look to be sitting on a rough-hewn wooden table. In the distance is a villa on a hill with a few big pointy trees nearby. All of this is painted, by the way, in a rough -- maybe Photoshopped-to-look-rough -- way.

Roger Ebert is fond of saying that a movie is not about what it is about; it’s about how it’s about what it’s about. Likewise, what’s great about Cooking with Fernet Branca is not that it’s about meals made of dog and cat, but how it’s about meals made of dog and cat.

This is one of the most satisfying books I’ve read in a very long time, start to finish. Not only is it one of the funniest things that I wager you’ll read this year; it’s also enjoyably written from the perspective of unreliable narrators. In fact a lot of what’s funny and inventive about it is the wildly different takes that both narrators have on the same events.

Marta and Gerry occupy neighboring villas on the top of some remote Italian mountain, each looking for solitude for his or her own reasons. Gerry is a writer, pounding out ghostwritten biographies of vapid celebrities (race-car drivers, downhill skiers); Marta composes scores for artistically important films. From Gerry’s perspective, Marta is some frumpy Eastern European peasant with a vague command of English. From her perspective, Gerry is an insular, probably homosexual Brit with a strange, characteristically British absence where his bottom should be. Unexplained helicopters visit Marta in the dead of night. Gerry interviews one of his emptyheaded celebrities on the night of one of these helicopter arrivals, and his credulous-hippie mind swears that Marta has been visited by an alien. The confusions pile up between Marta and Gerry.

Most of what’s hilarious about Cooking with Fernet Branca, though, has nothing to do with a comedy of errors. Indeed, I think most of the plot is incidental; it serves as ornamentation draping off the outlandish stylistic frame and one of the absurd central premises of the book — namely, that you can cook anything with Fernet Branca.

Fernet, for those of you who are unware, is an Italian after-dinner bitters which the inestimable mrz tells me is used in Italian households to soothe an upset stomach; it quite often pulls off this trick by doubling as an emetic. (Personally, I love the stuff, and I find that it does wonders for the digestion.) Fernet shows up on most every page of Hamilton-Paterson’s book; not only does Gerry toss it liberally into all his dishes, but the characters consume quantities of the stuff that are well beyond the realm of reasonableness. [1] Glasses, bottles, cases of the stuff get slurped down throughout the course of this book — with, it must be said, truth-to-life about just how devastating that much Fernet would be to your head. Among the recipes containing Fernet:

  • Garlic and Fernet Branca Ice Cream, whose intended purpose is to make Marta get the point that she’s not welcome but instead awakens Gerry “with a series of awesome farts…on the ground by [his] front doorstep with dawn breaking all around.”
  • Rabbit in Cep Custard, containing “1 kg fresh rabbit chunks”
  • Alien Pie, containing “1kg smoked cat, off the bone”
  • Otter With Lobster Sauce, containing “1.5kg otter chunks”

These recipes are all, it seems to me, entirely possible, if horrifying. (Stay away from my cats.) I’m curious to what extent Hamilton-Paterson replicated them in his own kitchen.

Hamilton-Paterson’s sense of humor is wicked and completely tweaked. Some examples:

  1. On the plane just now I was toying with the idea of Poodles in Noodles. Who knows, its consonance may be more promising than the actuality and I’ll have to consult a Filipino friend of mine about it first. The same goes for Pekes in Leeks.

  2. Have you ever embarked on something that looked completely straightforward but which has turned out to be bafflingly technical? For instance, I was completely flummoxed some time ago in a dentist’s waiting room when trying to kill time with the crossword in the current number of JAPEDA, the Journal of the American Pedophilia Association — a scholarly magazine I had not encountered before. … I labored in vain for half an hour, although it did occur to me later that American may spell “pyjamas” with an “a” in place of our “y”.

  3. Meanwhile, I have gone right off my beautiful idea of pears in Gorgonzola with cinnamon cream. It’s all Marta’s fault. Had she not drenched that putty ball of hers in the cinnamon cream I was experimenting with the other day it might still be a possibility. But the whole idea now reeks of linseed oil and bullying and has been ruined for me. Imagine Bach busy writing a soulful aria for the Saint Matthew Passion when in the street outside a butcher’s boy goes past whistling a popular ditty about three jolly swineherds. Suddenly poor old JSB realizes it’s the very tune he’s now writing, only much faster and in a major key. “God damn,” he mutters softly to himself as he slowly tears up the manuscript, having unwittingly had a preview of what in a hundred and fifty years will be known as the unconscious. That’s pretty much how I feel about the irreparable damage Marta has done my cinnamon cream.

I laughed constantly while reading this book — or, when on the T, where outright laughter is maybe frowned upon, I carried a devilish grin on my face at all times. Such a delight, this book. Go out, grab a copy, and enjoy the next few hours of your life.

[1] — (You drink maybe an ounce at a time. The people at Drink mixed me a flip based on it once. Looks like Cocktail Slut long ago discovered the Fernet Flip, as has Cocktail Chronicles.)

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