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


I picked this up on a whim after seeing another book by the same author on a display table at Vroman's. It's an easy-read - the plot is negligible, but the characters are funny and the dual first-person narration is delightfully bookish and chatty. The main character is an (implicitly) gay English ex-pat author in Italy, and a bit of a stereotype in broad outline - but the delight is in the details here. An extra pleasure for those with Anglomane tendencies. Overall, it's a book that is easy to pick-up, easy to put-down, but likely to be picked-up again. I borrowed the sequel (Amazing Disgrace) when I returned it. My review should follow. . .

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.


one of 3 about gerald (gerreee!) and Marta? there are at least 2 of these titles anyway.


This book is indeed witty. If not for the wonderful writing and use of language, I would have rated it lower, for in fact, I didn't enjoy it very much. I think the problem may have been the humor which perhaps was aimed at a British audience and the recipes, that others may have found hilarious, left me unmoved. In any case, I didn't get much of it and very little made me laugh. Ah, but the writing, the wit, that was worth the read.


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 !

Elias Mendoza

A witty book that wears thin by the end. The author did well to underscore different perspectives of happenings and events by structuring the book so that both main characters narrate their version of each. Not every event was worthy of such presentation, so the book wears a little thin. The structure also then forces the book to focus on the events and not on the development of the relationship between the two characters. Because of the style, the actual story takes long to come together and ultimately falls into place very quickly and simply in the end The book was definitely witty and the presentation of events, ideas and characters in and around the Italian setting were often farcical and funny. Read it for the humor but not the story


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.


Hilarious. The narrator is a pompous twit through and through, that's what makes it great. Interspersed with recipes that get progressively more and more insane, and I think they all include a bit of mankind's most vile aperitif -- fernet branca.


I hesitated to give this book 5 stars only because I may just be so relieved to have enjoyed a book after a long succession of vanilla before it. But after looking backwards through my list of books I've read until finding the last book I enjoyed so much, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I've decided that, yes, it earned those stars.The book is told from the points of view of two alternating narrators who are neighbors in Tuscany. Gerald is an uptight narcissist who loves his solitude and is therefore disappointed when Marta moves in next door. Each of them is convinced that it is the other that is butting into his/her life. Also, each of them considers the other a drunk. Gerald is hilarious and Marta is adorable. Over the course of the book I grew to trust Marta more. I'm not sure if that was supposed to happen.This book was just perfect, and I would recommend it to anyone.


Whatever else we can say about James Hamilton-Paterson, he is a very funny man. If you ever found yourself in the Italian countryside gazing at the villa next door and wondering who lives there and who, for gosh sakes, is coptering in and out, after reading this novel, you may very well decide you don’t really want to know. It may be entangling, and may, after all, be the end of all you hold dear.Gerald Samper, British biographer to the rich and famous, buys an old villa in need of repair in Tuscany’s Apuan Alps region. He is told, as is his nearby neighbor, that the owner of the nearby villa is rarely in residence so his quest for privacy and solitude is guaranteed. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, the resident of the villa he can see from his own is none other than a well-to-do refugee from a Soviet republic, with all her entangling connections.Samper likes cooking, and we are treated to recipes inspired by the abundant local produce, but dreamt up entirely within the convoluted confines of Samper’s own twisted mind: Mussels in Chocolate, say, or Baked Pears in Gorgonzola with Cinnamon Cream, Lampreys in Sherry, Alien Pie, which features smoked cat mixed with baby beets, nasturtium leaves, pureed prunes, and green bacon (what on earth…?), or my personal favorite, Tuna Stuffed with Prunes in Marmite Butter. But Samper deprecates (with good reason) the specialties his neighbor offers him, delicacies delivered direct from the former Soviet republic of Voynovia. As described by Samper:”…brightly colored voynovian objects that were delicate to the same extent that traffic cones are. There were awesome pellets like miniature doughnuts wrapped in candied angelica leaf and injected with chili sauce. Others looked like testicles set in dough. I gathered these were pigeon’s eggs and couldn’t catch her name for them although the phrase that came to me immediately was Christ on a Tricycle. Spearmint eggs?”But this book is not about cooking, despite the title. It is about living the good life in Tuscany among other artists—writers, musicians, filmmakers, realtors--magicians of all stripes. And what of Fernet Branca? It is a digestif concocted in Italy that, given as a gift to the new arrivals of Le Roccie, is purchased a second time to return the courtesy, and becomes a central feature of the misunderstandings among the residents and visitors there. It is described in Wikipedia as having the flavor of “black-licorice-flavored Listerine."


** 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.

Shimone Samuel

I picked this book up on a whim while traveling in New York. Admittedly "Fernet Branca" caught my eye so I took a chance after reading the cover which described "a work of comic genius".I wouldn't go so far as to call it comic genius (for me that's David Cross) but by the end I was indeed laughing - right out loud. The "recipes" in this book were downright ridiculous but mostly it was a novel told from the perspective of two neighbors.As the story unfolded I was struck by how illogical the perceptions we have of one another are - a central theme of the story.The humor was dry and cynical, the recipes uncookable, and the plot entertaining and interesting through to the end.


Having read this almost a decade ago, I decided to see if this hysterical and charming book lived up to my memories of reading it. Thankfully, it did in spades!Gerald Samper, an effete Englishman, lives on a hilltop in Tuscany. He is a ghostwriter for celebrities, and a foodie, whose weird tastes include 'Mussels in Chocolate and Garlic' and 'Fernet Branca Ice Cream'. His idyll is shattered by the arrival of Marta, a vulgar woman from a former Soviet republic now run by gangsters, notably male members of her family. She is a composer in a neo-folk style who claims to be writing a score for a trendy Italian film director. The neighbours' lives disastrously intertwine. The entourages of the rock star and the director come and go; mysterious black helicopters bring news of mayhem in Voynova, Marta's homeland; and along the way the English obsession with Tuscany is satirized mercilessly.We all have at least one Gerald in our lives. We all have at least one Marta. And we all live for the day that some dinner party puts them sitting next to each other. We know fireworks are going to ensue, for all of the wrong reasons. And that is what makes this book such a delight.Told in alternating narrative perspectives, we get to see how simple events and misunderstandings can be viewed in entirely different ways by each party. How prejudices and preconceptions run both ways. How no one is every quite what you think they are. And how sometimes the best laid plans for revenge are foiled by different tastes in ice-cream.And through all of the sniping, cattiness, neighbourly battles, bizarre recipes, bald rockstars, lothario film directors, Eastern European mobsters and English colonial attitudes, we get to watch these two miss matched individuals thrown together by circumstance form a true friendships.Did I mention it's hysterically funny as well?Hamilton-Paterson is fantastic writing in both voices and does it so convincingly that I actually took to Google to check if a few of his more outlandish (but maybe just slightly plausible things) were fact or fiction. Let's just say Google returns some interesting items using "Smoked Cat" for a search string.This book won't tickle everyone the way it did me but I loved it. I'm glad I decided to re-read it, and will most likely do so again. But first... I have to get my hands on the two sequels!4/5


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!


** 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.

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