When my friend Col (over at Col Reads) first suggested James Hamilton-Paterson's Cooking With Fernet Branca, I read the cover blurb and thought, "Not another food memoir!" The whole genre feels pretty tired to me, and although there are the occasional standouts like Heat, more often they are simply rather dull, like Julie and Julia, or worse, like its followup, Cleaving. Basically, I've lost my appetite for them.
But Col and I have a habit of reading together, and since we typically read books about food and cooking, and the title kept popping up on our list, so I took a second look at Fernet Branca - which, against my expectations, turned out to be the perfect choice for someone who has read - well, one* too many foodie memoirs.
Fernet Branca, it turns out, is a delicious sendup of the entire genre. The story - and there isn't much of one - is told in turns by the two main characters: Gerald, an effete, pseudo-opera-singing, British author of celebrity biographies and ersatz chef, and Marta, his neighbor, a solid, hippie-ish composer from a corrupt Eastern European mafia family. The two have both bought houses in an Italian village in hopes of being isolated and focusing on their respective crafts, and their intertwining narratives tell the story of two neighbors who are both driving each other insane and are, inevitably, inexplicably drawn to each other.
There's not a lot of sexual tension to ruin the fun: as soon as you start reading, you know what the outcome between Gerald and Marta will, so Hamilton-Paterson spends his time peppering the story with the comic details that make it such a delight.
Marta is initially presented to the reader, by Gerald, as an oafish woman, intruding on Gerry's peace with a neighborly visit and bottle of Fernet Branca, and conversation evidently limited by lack of facility with English, to match her perceived lack of education. Gerald, meanwhile, spends his time loving restoring his Italian home as only a true craftsman can - whilst singing brilliant opera dreaming up his special brand of inspired culinary triumphs, recipes for which he generously shares with the reader.
Cut to Marta's narrative, which is presumably written in her more comfortable native language, and is the writing of not an Eastern European peasant, but a secretly wealthy composer working on the score to a movie by a famous Italian auteur. Her work, it seems, is continually interrupted by her neighbor's tone-deaf mock opera.
And so it goes, back and forth between the two.
Although I enjoyed Marta's sections of the book, it was Gerald's sections that really got me laughing; in particular, his bizarre recipes, highlights of which are below. Spoiler Alert! These recipes are pretty much guaranteed to ruin your appetite:
- Otter With Lobster Sauce
- Rabbit in Cep Custard
- Alien Pie (first ingredient, "smoked cat, off the bone")
Along with a dash of Fernet Branca, each recipe is served with a heaping helping of profound insights, such as "No decent cook gets to heaven by way of Hellman's," and serving instructions such as "Serve with reverence, a panoramic view, and a crisp white wine."
I'm taking a bit of a break from the whole foodie genre for a bit, sated as I am with it. But I'm glad I imbibed a little Fernet Branca for my final course: it was the perfect palate cleanser.
This was my first first installment in the Europa Challenge! My full review - and many others - can also be found on my blog, Desperado Penguin.