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


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.

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.


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.


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.


I didn't manage to read this in Mexico, though I was told it would be the perfect smart-person airplane book, but I did pick it up as soon as I got back, and it was very much as promised: dryly hilarious, fast-moving, clever, and a whole lot of fun. Cooking With Fernet Branca is dual-ly narrated by two next-door neighbors living on the Italian countryside: Gerard Samper, a very proper Englishman and self-proclaimed "master chef" (more on that soon), who makes his money ghostwriting autobiographies for idiotic sports stars; and Marta, a somewhat bumpkin-ish composer from Eastern Europe (Voynovia, actually) who has been commissioned to write a film score for a famous arty and controversial Italian film director. So. Gerard and Marta are incredibly well-drawn characters, from her pidgin English and lovingly frazzled appearance to his fastidious mannerisms and constant stream of sarcastic inner monologue. They are both a bit unreliable as narrators, which is done with great subtlety at times, and then become very overt when the narrative switches sides and we get to see the same scene retold through the other's eyes. Their relationship is so complex, so changing, so real, that it carries the entire book brilliantly. See, they hate each other. I mean, each was told when they bought their houses that their immediate neighbor was quiet and calm, and would only be home maybe one month out of the year. But Marta's brother keeps stopping by in a helicopter in the middle of the night, and Gerard sings horrifically off-key opera while he avoids work by loudly building fences and other such, and each drives the other totally crazy with their drunkenness and terrifying cooking. And oh, the cooking!! This is where the book's darkest humor shimmers horrifyingly. Gerard, who punctuates his sections with explicitly detailed recipes, loves to cook. And the things he cooks are...well...not for the faint of heart. Examples include: stuffed udder in butterscotch sauce, smoked cat pot pie, parrots 'n' carrots, horse custard, and more and more. In fact, one of the subtle ways in which he wages war with Marta is with cuisine mépriseur, the cuisine of contempt. She – though unwittingly – does about the same thing, by always trying to feed him homemade Voynovian treats, which are every bit as horrifying to his palate as his deep-fried mice would be to hers. In any case, of course, they bicker and fight and scheme and plot, and eventually work their way into one another's good graces, more or less. There is much much more to this book than I have let on here, but I hope I have at least...whet some appetites, as it were, because I really think James Hamilton-Paterson ought to be better known. I plan to get both the other books he's written about Gerard and Marta tout suite, before the fall ends and I am expected to read more, er, serious literature.


** 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.


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.


U.K. and Eastern European cultures collide in Tuscany. Hamilton-Paterson's two unique characters move next door to each other. The British author is egotistical and overbearing. He thinks of himself as quite the cook as well, and prepares unique food such as smoked cat (the recipes are wild). The Eastern European music writer has her own challenges, including family and employer. Many antics ensue that amuse and delight, especially with the building of a fence between the properties. This is a very different book, in a very good way.

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.


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.


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


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


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."

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.


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!

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