Cooking with Fernet Branca

ISBN: 193337201X
ISBN 13: 9781933372013
By: James Hamilton-Paterson

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About this book

Gerald Samper, an effete English snob, has his own private hilltop in Tuscany, where he wiles away his time working as a ghostwriter for celebrities and inventing wholly original culinary concoctions-including ice cream made with garlic and the bitter, herb-based liqueur of the book's title. Gerald's idyll is shattered by the arrival of Marta, on the run from a crime-riddled former soviet republic. A series of hilarious misunderstandings brings this odd couple into ever closer and more disastrous proximity.James Hamilton-Paterson's first novel, "Gerontius," won the Whitbread Award. He is an acclaimed author of nonfiction books, including "Seven-Tenths," "Three Miles Down," and "Playing with Water," He currently lives in Italy.

Reader's Thoughts

Anne Green

A hilarious spoof of the "A Year in Provence" and "Under the Tuscan Sun" type travelogues focused on a couple of real weirdos, Gerald and Marta who end up as neighbours on a clifftop in Italy. The odious Gerald fancies himself as a gourmand of discriminating tastes and not half shabby as a chef but unless you fancy variously cooked domestic animals paired with exotic and highly potent Italian liqueurs and other combustible combinations, you won't be rushing off to the stove to follow his recipes. Marta is a rather unique character as well. Not meaning to do any disservice to Miriam Margolyes but I couldn't help picturing her in the role if this book ever got made into a film (which it should). Cleverly written and very entertaining, so long as you don't expect anything remotely resembling credibility.


COOKING WITH FERNET BRANCA. (2004). James Hamilton-Paterson. *****. I always get excited when I discover a new (to me) writer whose books are both well written and interesting. This writer is one of those. This is the first novel I’ve read by him, but rest assured that it won’t be the last. The author lives and works in Italy, but is thoroughly English. I don’t know who we have in the U. S. that is like him, but the closest I can think of is Bill Bryson. This novel is both literate and comic. It was nominated for the 2004 MAN Booker Prize. This is the first in a trilogy, and introduces us to two main characters: Gerald Samper and Marta. Gerald is a writer, a ghost writer. He specializes in ‘autobiographies’ of famous sports stars – although by the end of the book he does take on a rock star. He has purchased a villa in northern Tuscany that is relatively isolated so that he can concentrate on his writing. According to the estate agent, the nearest house to his is only occupied one month a year by vacationers. Marta (I’m not sure whether I ever caught her last name. No matter.), he soon discovers, is his neighbor. She bought the house next to his for the same reason: solitude, in which she can concentrate on her writing music for film scores. Marta is from Voynovia, a country that was recently a part of the Soviet bloc. She has escaped from her family – especially her domineering father – in order to set her spirits free. In Voynovia, women, in particular, daughters, are second-class citizens, and live under the thumbs of their male relatives. She is of an indeterminate age; late 30s (?), and no fashion model. She speaks both a pidgin English and a pidgin Italian. Gerald speaks excellent English, of course, and a passable Italian. He is also a devoted and creative chef. His style is to juxtapose ingredients that are not normally admixed to produce a totally new taste sensation. Many of his recipes are given in the text. As you might have guessed, the two neighbors are immediately like oil and water. The clash of cultures and languages leads to anything but the peace and quiet they were both seeking. These clashes come in the form of riotous situations that will have you laughing as you read along. It is difficult to write a humorous novel, but this author seems to have mastered it completely. Highly recommended.


This was intensely funny at times, especially in the beginning. I agree with other reviews that it doesn't totally sustain itself all the way through, but then it's not especially long either. Worth reading especially for foodies who realize deep inside that they're ridiculous.


Witty and goofy, complex, farcical. Lots of somewhat contradictory adjectives come to mind. The recipes are truly horrendous and therefore truly hilarious. The plot is bizarre and entertaining. The two main characters take turns telling their stories in first person, and their differences and similarities are fascinating to watch develop. A fun and twisted book. I love the fact that this was nominated for a Booker prize--not what you'd think was a typical nominee!

Christopher Lehmann

What a hoot. What a joy. I'm a lover of Fernet Branca so secretly hoped I'd trip over a use of the stuff that would inspire me to expand how I consume it. Forget that, I wouldn't dare. I'm not an expert on books for airplanes and beaches but I think this has to be one of those. Fast and fun.


** spoiler alert ** If you like your farce broad and your humor homophobic and ethnic, you might enjoy this feeble attempt at the comic-novel genre. It’s no wonder that Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage in, so to speak, “art”) blurbed this book: Dame Edna, too, has difficulty steering clear of wog jokes and cracks about dog-eating Asians, and Hamilton-Paterson is enthusiastically carrying the tradition forward. Sure, it’s all in good fun (noodge, noodge, wink, wink). What’s always interesting about “I can say anything I want” comedy, though, is that it’s a lot like the so-called “free market.” It doesn’t actually exist because someone always has to pay for it. Similarly, a really good question to ask about _Cooking with Fernet Branca _is: Who’s picking up the bill for these jokes? The novel is (somewhat irritatingly) divided into two voices which narrate alternating sections of the book – the flaming and punctilious Brit expat, Mr. Samper, and his neighbor, Marta, a refugee from a former Eastern bloc country whose inhabitants we are supposed to understand are backward, simple, and prone to involvement in organized crime. Taking turns, they say mean, bitchy, slanderous things about one another. In most cases, H-P allows the aggrieved party to respond in his or her chapter-length monologues to what the other has said or, at least, to provide information that rounds out the picture. For example: early in the book, each neighbor speculates about what the other could possibly be doing to earn a living, given that s/he has no talent and is clearly some kind of hanger-on/wannabe/third-rate hack. But then Samper and Marta actually reveal, in their respective chapters, that they have real professions and are practicing them with at least a modicum of success (sufficient to allow each of them to buy a buy house in the hills above the Tuscan coast, at any rate). See how that works? First, catty speculation about the other’s alcoholism/parentage/sexual habits, then an ‘explanation’ that makes it clear how wrongly they see one another. Busybody neighbors getting up to gossip and rumor-mongering. Fun for the entire family, in an entirely trite sort of way. Only thing is, not every aspersion is countered. Marta, e.g., immediately labels Samper a “dudi,” which one is meant to understand as a slang term in her native tongue that is roughly equivalent to “faggot.” Indeed, Samper serves as the novel’s principal figure of fun. While Marta, in her chapters, manages to come across as a genuine human being, Samper remains a queen, an idiot, and a clown. Ah, but H-P never actually comes out and has Samper say that he’s queer, does he? If you, Gentle Reader, make that assumption on the basis of the collection of stereotypes that the author has assembled, that can only mean *you’re* the homophobic one, right? Well, James, actually not. What it means is that you’re something of a coward as a writer and a bit of a bigot in creating a Hysterical Queen character who never actually gets to respond to (or rise above) the charge of being a “dudi,” and who, in the end, remains no more than that. There’s something slightly venomous, that is, in the novel’s portrayal of Samper. H-P gives Marta at least a hint of depth, dimension, and motivation; Samper remains a gay Stepin Fetchit who never claws his way out of the 1950s-ish Quentin Crisp impersonation in which the author has imprisoned him (though Crisp, at least, had personal dignity). Ridi pagliaccio.


** spoiler alert ** Gerald, a writer of cheesy celebrity biographies, and Marta, a composer from a fictional former Soviet-bloc country, buy adjacent houses in Tuscany. Each one has also assured by a sleazy real estate agent that their property will afford them utter peace and quiet. Comedy ensues.Oddly, this book slowly descended from four stars to three as I continued reading it. I laughed hilariously during the first chapter, and then became less and less charmed by the book as it continued. I'm not quite sure why -- maybe it was that Gerald's voice started to wear on me a bit. And I think part of the problem, frankly, was that I didn't quite get the satire, as the target -- expat Europeans living in Tuscany -- is a bit beyond my ken.Still, it's fun to spend time with these two very unreliable narrators, and even if you don't quite grasp the satire, the narrative is a ripping yarn whose style keeps things crackling along nicely. And the chapter where each one finally realizes that the other's seemingly preposterous stories are actually true is wonderful and worth the price of the book. The mock recipes are also hilarious, although you might want to avert your eyes if you're a member of PETA.

David Whittlestone

A brilliant read. The first of a trilogy which gets better and better. Written with wit and assumed sophistication, this is a very funny book set as an Englishman living in Italy. The prose is excellent, making it a very easy book to read. I instantly downloaded the next two.

Karen Lowe

I loved this book - it's totally original and wickedly funny.


Umm.. parts were laugh-out-loud hilarious, parts were ineffably tedious- overall a mad and random train wreck of a book. I peered through my fingers, unable to stop reading but couldn't wait for it to end.

Kasa Cotugno

Hamilton-Paterson flawlessly folds Into this souffle folded many ingredients seemingly disparate, resulting in hilarity and desire for more. Told in alternating voices, the plot soars hilariously. Marta, a composer from Eastern Europe, and Gerald, a ghost-writing ex-pat from England, live in mutual disharmony, misdirection and misunderstanding on a Tuscan hilltop. It helps, but is not necessary, for the reader to be somewhat knowledgeable about Pier Paolo Pasolini, East European mafia, gourmet cooking. Add to this, Boy Bands, UFOs, ghostwritten "autobiographies," Italian filmmaking. Not since "Somebody is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe" have there been recipes of such escalating ludicrousness. Hilarious! I'm gratified to learn that there are at least two books that follow this one.


I can sum up this one in two words - wickedly hilarious. It had me laughing out loud, something I do unfortunately all too rarely whilst reading these days. It manages to poke fun at some recent cultural obsessions - boy bands, UFOs, Tuscan villas, cooking, DIY projects, filmmaking, sports celebrities, the new Europe and issues of gay mens innate tastefulness. The book is a great diversion from the everyday humdrum - a tasty morsel of wit and humour that left me wanting more. I think I will check out more of Hamilton-Patersons works - I like his style (and his subtle and tasteless use of bodily gasses).

Dana Defebbo

I read this book for a Book Club. Based on the description, I don't think I would have read it on my own. This review will be a little half-hearted because I read the book half-heartedly. I mostly found the characters to be annoying and whiny. If not for the book club, I would have stopped reading about a third of the way into the book. It is not a hard read, but I found the dialog to be unrealistic. Perhaps if you read the book with a type of parody in mind then it might be a little more appealing. Or perhaps it is a parady and I just didn't notice it right off the bat.


This was a hilarious book. I discovered it serendipitously, after reading "The Elegance of the Hedgehog", I was searching for other books published by Europa Editions, as they seem to specialize in interesting and unique books. Took me a chapter to realize that the book is a satire or spoof of sorts--at first I found it a bit pretentious and then realized it was making fun of books like "Under the Tuscan Sun" that have been so highly recommended. And the trend to put recipes in books--some of the the examples in this book were hilarious--"Otter with Lobster Sauce", "Fish Cake" --eewww!I will definitely look for other books by this author.


Cooking, crime & celebritizing collide - often hilariously -in this satiric tease on rustic retreats. Hamilton-Patersonwrites with an assured and idiosyncratic comic spirit.Two crackpot neighbors are thrown together in Tuscany -- a hotspot of distilled lunacy. Their mischievousnessbecomes a perfect uncorked stimulant.Meet a Brit ghostwriter for celebs who settles in Tusc to write and cook in peace. Then a hearty woman composer fr Eastern Europe plumps down nearby to ponder a score for a fawncy Italian film director. She happens to have a gangster brother. Can they all get along? Is there a screwball life after death...want some eels cooked in chocolate..? Buon divertimento !

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