Saturday, July 30, 2011

Review: Cooking With Fernet Branca, by James Hamilton-Paterson

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.

I read this book as my first installment in the Europa Challenge, and I'm excited to see what else this fun publisher has in store! Today I'm simul-blogging with Col at Col Reads and another Colleen - over at Books In the City. Why not amble on over and see what they thought of today's read?

*More than one too many. I'm being polite.


  1. Looks like so far this is a unanimous winner - I generally love the Europa books, and it looks like this might just be another one I'd like. Anything that can make me laugh right now would be most appreciated, and food-related fiction is always something I'm up for.

  2. 'But Col and I have a habit of reading together...'
    ok, they explains why I thought I had went back to the same post a second
    seems i might have to check this one out.

  3. Like I said on Col's blog, I really need to read this. Modern food writing isn't what it used to be. Try MFK Fisher, Waverly Root, Calvin Trillin, Elizabeth David .... back before food writing was equal to women's fiction.

  4. Yeah! One we both loved. But if your sated with food books, we'll have to think of something else for our next simul-blog! Your turn -- do we have any other overlaps on the Europa Challenge?

  5. This sounds like a fun and funny read. I'm not quite sated on the food memoir genre, but I'll keep this in mind when I need to get over it for awhile.

  6. I enjoyed reading both your and Col's review of this book. Between the two of you I now feel compelled to read this book. It sound hilarious.

  7. Sounds like a really fun read! Have to check this one out, thanks!

  8. After reading Col's review and this one, you both have me convinced that this is a must read. I think I'll skip over those recipes though.


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