Faber & Faber, £10.99
Cooking with Fernet Branca, by James Hamilton-Paterson
A comedy of menus high up in Tuscany
Monday 26 July 2004
Going by the title, you might reasonably expect this to be a cookbook, if of a specialised nature. Though it contains recipes, it is unlikely that the fratelli Branca, who distil the potent restorative of the title, would wish to sponsor any work that includes such dishes as Otter with Lobster Sauce, Rabbit in Cep Custard and Alien Pie, a savoury repast that requires "1kg smoked cat, off the bone". These gruesome concoctions are the specialities of Gerald Samper, the petulant, arch and queeny protagonist of this enjoyable comedy of expatriate life.
Like his creator, Samper is an author who lives on top of a Tuscan mountain overlooking the Mediterranean. For the sake of James Hamilton-Paterson's future health, it is to be hoped the real-life parallels stop there, for Samper is saddled with a noisy new neighbour who happens to be the daughter of a Slavic gangster. The prissy Englishman and exuberant Marta recount their wary encounters in alternate sections. Hamilton-Paterson extracts much humour from their greatly varying views.
Samper seeks an outlet for his seething misanthropism by inflicting emetic dishes on anyone with the misfortune to encounter him. Sadly, this backfires with Marta, who has a taste for ferocious flavours. She regards his Fernet-Branca and Garlic ice-cream as "a bit bland", while he has to eat one of her dumplings, which has "a toffee-like filling based apparently on horse liniment". Later, Samper reports, "great putty-flavoured farts follow me from room to room".
Having set up this promising mésalliance, Hamilton-Paterson does not do a great deal with it. His two leading figures are both plunged into fairly unlikely subplots. Marta is writing a film score for a director who is a cross between Antonioni and Fellini, while Samper agrees to ghostwrite the memoir of a vocalist in a British boy band. The latter was an unfortunate choice, since no register is harder to achieve than the hipster slang of a younger generation. Equally, Marta's auteur employer is less monstrous than the real thing.
Even if it doesn't go anywhere in particular, the yarn is filigreed with a host of baroque detail, such as Samper's fondness for mordant anagrams based on Lyme Regis - the location of a family tragedy. Hamilton-Paterson pulls off some fine comic set-pieces. The film director's casual destruction of a fence painfully constructed by Samper (he shoots himself in the ankle with a nail-gun) had me chortling.
But it is the recipes that linger in the mind. The "single drop of household paraffin" added to Alien Pie is a truly ghastly touch. Although Hamilton-Paterson names both the producer and village where you can obtain the best smoked cat, you don't get much by tapping "gatto affumato" into Google. However, his inclusion of a Tuscan estate agent who assures Samper and Marta that their neighbour "is only here one month in the year" has a ring of absolute veracity.
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