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Gastronimica: "Though Cooking with Femet Branca sounds like the title of an offbeat cookbook, it is, in fact, a devilishly funny novel, complete with stomach-turning recipes."

Date: Dec 8 2006

If the thought of one more romantic story or memoir set in
the glorious Italian countryside makes you want to puke, James
Hamilton-Paterson's Cooking with Fernet Branca just might
be the best summer read you've ever experienced. In this
bitingly witty satire, Hamilton-Paterson turns life under that
Tuscan sun upside down, sparing no one, not even himself, as
he pokes fun of celebrity autobiographies, yuppie food culture,
and the romantic image of country life in southern Europe.

Though Cooking with Femet Branca sounds like the
title of an offbeat cookbook, it is, in fact, a devilishly funny
novel, complete with stomach-turning recipes. Gerald is a
British expatriate ghostwriter for sports celebrities, with a
penchant for cooking things like mussels in chocolate and
singing opera off-key. Marta is an avant-garde film composer
from a fictitious former Soviet Bloc country who eats kasha
and shines her hair with goose fat. Both have bought houses
in the Tuscan countryside, seeking a quiet and peaceful
environment in order to complete their artistic endeavors.
However, instead of finding tranquility, Gerald and Marta
discover not only that they are neighbors but that they can't
stand or understand each other. Thus begins a comic
adventure of the "he said, she said" variety.

Hamilton-Peterson heightens the comedy of the neighbors'
feud by telling the story in first-person narration, alternating
between Gerald's and Marta's point of view. Gerald, listening
to Marta's pidgin English, assumes that she is rather dimwitted
and tasteless, a "shock of frizzy hair with an upturned
sebaceous face at its center" (p.16). Marta, on the other
hand, thinks that Gerald is "the sort of person you can fathom
without words. I mean to say, he's just the complete dudi...
I've no idea what he does for a living, although he claims
to write a bit. I've got him down as one of those dilettante
types who dabble in this and that" (p.39). In reality, both of
them are dumpy in appearance, intelligent, and artistically
successful and eat strange foods. They are, in fact, soul
mates, and their fights and misunderstandings read as a
courtship gone horribly wrong. Flavoring their strange
relationship is Fernet Branca, the bitter Italian digestif that
they drink at each meeting. fu a result Marta and Gerald
view one another as alcoholics who spend their day guzzling
this potent spirit.

Of particular interest to Gastronomica readers is the
delightful way in which Hamilton-Peterson plays with food
and cuisine, parodying the succulent recipes and food
descriptions of the expatriate memoirs written by Frances
Mayes and Peter Mayle. Gerald may be a ghostwriter, but
his true passion is inventing unusual and bizarre recipes
that sound wholly inedible. Some favorites include an
almond cake made with tinned mackerel, lampreys doused
in sherry, and otter with lobster sauce, all infused with the
aforementioned Fernet Branca.

The best recipe has to be Alien Pie, a creation that,
according to Gerald, "may be better treated by the nonspecialist
cook as a theoretical text, more of a thought experiment
than an actual dish...to prepare the dish adequately
requires a week (a month if you include smoking the cats)"
(p.r6S). Featuring smoked cat, paraffin, a hawksbill turtle,
and green bacon, the results of such a recipe can only be
surmised. Would Jeffrey Steingarten, "the man who ate
everything," or culinary devil Anthony Bourdain ever eat
such a creation?

Gerald even uses his formidable kitchen skills to get
back at Marta. When invited over for dinner at Marta's house,
he whips together a batch of garlic and Fernet Branca ice
cream in order to leave his nemesis cringing. Marta, however,
gets the last laugh when she serves him shonka, "a
gross sausage the colour of rubberwear and as full of lumps
as a prison mattress" (p.28). Dinner in Tuscany never
sounded so rank.

Cooking with Femet Branca is an inventive book that is
both nonsensical and intelligent. James Hamilton-Peterson
continually delights the reader, serving up jokes, parodies,
and games in remarkably stylish prose. This is a novel that
revels in its bizarre nature-a literary hip to another realm.
Gerald's Alien Pie aside, Cooking with Femet Branca is a
delicious heat, best savored whenever a vacation is needed
from the mundane normalcy of everyday life.