Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 19, 2021

Cooking with Fernet Branca (2004), by James Hamilton-Paterson

It’s been nothing but bad news lately, so it’s time for some lightweight comic reading.

I think that I probably bought Cooking with Fernet Branca because it was longlisted for the Booker in 2004.  My visit to Goodreads today reveals that it is Book #1 in the Gerald Samper series which surprises me a little because I thought that the joke had worn a little thin towards the end, but still, it is a funny book.

The narrative is carried by two alternating voices:

Gerald Samper is a truly awful and spectacularly pompous Englishman who is a ghost writer of sporting biographies.  He despises all his subjects, as indeed he despises many things, including his neighbour in Tuscany where he has bought a villa.  Since he considers himself a writer of more importance than his publications suggest, he has had assurances from the house agent Mr Benedetti that this villa is remote and quiet and conducive to creative thought, and that his only neighbour down the hill is very rarely in residence.

His neighbour, Marta, was promised the same solitude.  A refugee from a family of ex-Soviet crime lords in ‘Voynovia’, she is involved in the creative industries too.  She has come for peace and quiet to complete a film score, on commission from a famous but past his use-by date Italian film-maker called Piero Pacini.  She despises Gerry with equal fervour but she has a good heart and when Gerry knocks himself out demolishing an ancient privy that spoils his view, she brings him breakfast the next day.

‘Gerree!’ she cries, and certainly her voice has no connection whatever with music.  It goes right through your head like a bullet, leaving a track of gross tissue damage.  ‘You are not bedding! Is very good.  Look, I bring a break-fast.  Yes.  Is Voynovian food for dying.’ She produces what looks like a ball of putty wrapped in a sock.  Is kasha.’

Kasha, I remember, is Russian buckwheat or bulgur or something.  I associate it with that vegetarian restaurant chain in London where the bread is dark and dense, the flans look like coconut matting and flapjacks fall like paving stones to the pit of the stomach where they lie for a week fermenting.  For days afterwards, one’s underwear smells of silage.  I raise the ball gingerly to my nose.  It is covered in her fingerprints.  Molasses again.  And … can that be linseed oil? Maybe it really is putty.

‘Is very good with cream.  We boil like that.’

Ah.  A sort of Voynovian haggis for terminal invalids.  Just what I need.

‘It gives very strength to stiff body.’  (p.60)

Gerry, who considers himself a gourmet entrepreneur inventing concoctions with bizarre ingredients, interprets this last comment to imagine that Marta fancies him.  His culinary pretensions are demonstrated by recipes for smoked cat pot pie and otter with lobster sauce; stuffed udder in butterscotch sauce and parrots ‘n’ carrots; horse custard and garlic ice-cream with Fernet Branca. Marta’s narrative leaves the reader in no doubt that he is wrong about (a) his attractiveness; (b) the desirability of eating anything he’s cooked; and (c) his talent for singing Italian opera.  Indeed she co-opts what she hears cascading down the hill for her score:

I’ve certainly had huge pleasure working on Gerry’s bogus Italian opera motif with the electronic keyboard.  I spent most of a happy morning trying to reproduce the plangent querulousness of his voice, the yodelling effect he gets when he crosses registers into falsetto.  (I had never really taken in before that this word is simply the diminutive of ‘false’.  ‘The little fake’ or ‘Il Falsetto’ is how I shall think of him from now on.) I’m afraid I reduced myself to helpless giggles the more nearly I approached the sound I wanted. (p.84)

Both of them drink far too much Fernet Branca.  (It’s about 39% alcohol by volume.)

This farce progresses from one misunderstanding to another, exacerbated by helicopters landing at Marta’s in the middle of the night, and the film-maker using her bedroom for a pornographic scene.  (She should have anticipated this: the film is called Arrazzato, after all, and Pacini had talked about a ‘meaningful orgy’ as requested by the Americans in LA who are financing the film.) Gerry tries to amp up his literary credentials by transitioning to writing about the leader of a boy band called Freewayz.  He’s a bit disconcerted to find out that Nanty believes in aliens and really thinks that Marta’s helicopters are the advance party from Beyond the Galaxy.

Cooking with Fernet Branca satirises the obsession with the Tuscan lifestyle and its appeal to people who fancy themselves as creatives.

Author: James Hamilton-Paterson
Title: Cooking with Fernet Branca
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2004
ISBN: 9780571220908, pbk., 296 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from readings $29.95


  1. This series of books has completely passed me by, as has Fernet Branca – I’ve just googled, it sounds powerful stuff!


    • It does indeed! And I saw somewhere that it uses astronomical quantities of saffron!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds most amusing – and just right for a nice distraction from the horrors of the world!


    • Yes, I’d almost forgotten what it was like to have a good laugh.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. All I remember is that Fernet Branca was a standing joke among travellers in the 70s and 80s because for most of us it required a taste we didn’t have.

    However, the idea of satirising that romance with Tuscany that was rife around that time sounds like something I’d enjoy. Many Aussies went there including I think David Malouf and Jeffrey Smart? And, confession time, I must admit that when I went to Europe over 1979/80, of all the places I went to it was Italy and particularly Tuscany that we fell in love with. We came back from that trip and started Italian lessons. This book might make me laugh at myself. Right now, that love seems so far away!


    • Oh yes, we did the villa in Tuscany thing — and I’d do it again in a heartbeat…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds like an excellent distraction. Had you not included a photo of it, I wouldn’t have recognized that we’ve a bottle of this in the cupboard, chosen in a “broaden the horizons” moment. Now I just need a copy of the book… Hee hee


    • Really?! Do tell us, what does it taste like?


  5. […] My fantasy job is Cooking with Fernet Branca, by James Hamilton-Paterson […]


  6. Rereading it nearly 20 years down the road, this is still probably the funniest, cleverest, most well-written farce ever. I didn’t have a smartphone in 2004, but this reading I can be certain that the multilingual jokes are as funny as I thought they might be!


    • Hello Jain, I agree, I had fond memories of it, just re-reading my review!


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