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.
BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital moveTV
Final Top Gear reviewTV
FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets
Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Tunisia hotel attack: Locals form 'human shield' to protect hotel from gunman Seifeddine Rezgui
- 2 Iain Duncan Smith's expenses credit card is suspended after he runs up £1,000 debt to taxpayer
- 3 German ethics council calls for incest between siblings to be legalised by Government
- 4 French woman dies in freak bungee jumping accident
- 5 Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck to divorce and end their 10-year marriage
Top Gear: Former co-host James May to present new BBC2 car show
The Rolling Stones announce biggest ever touring rock exhibition with Saatchi Gallery
Glastonbury 2015: The best bits you missed from Lionel Richie and the Dalai Lama to The Libertines' secret set
Glastonbury 2015: The picture of a man crowd surfing in a wheelchair is brilliant, but it wasn't taken at Glastonbury
Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James' Twitter Q&A didn't exactly go as planned
The moment a Queen's Guard soldier lost it and drew his gun at annoying tourist
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
They are neither a 'state' nor 'Islamic': Why we shouldn't call them Isis, Isil or IS
Tunisia beach attack: How can British Muslims respond to the latest outrages?