The Weasel: Bitter memories

Share
Related Topics

What better than an aperitif to introduce this magazine's summer banquet? But before anyone gets excited, I feel obliged to point out that you probably won't like it. Though eagerly consumed in a few spots around the world, we don't care for this potent Italian bracer in the UK. Dark brown in colour, somewhat similar in appearance to the liquid that leaches from ancient vegetables forgotten in the larder, it has an aggressive bitterness that does not chime with the British palate. Mostly, it is regarded here as a kill-or-cure hangover remedy, though there are a few enthusiasts who take it onboard for pleasure and, just possibly, as a hangover cure as well. One is Fergus Henderson, the genial chef-patron of St John restaurant.

"Uplifting, very uplifting," replied Fergus, when I asked for his opinion of this acerbic grog. "I find it very efficacious." Such is his zeal for the stuff that Fergus once visited the production plant in Milan. When I showed interest, he expressed willingness to pay a return visit. In consequence, a party of intrepid topers, including Fergus, the Weasel and Fergus's father, the architect Brian Henderson, made the trek last week to the imposing 1908 factory on via Resegone that produces 15 million litres per year of Fernet-Branca.

A cocktail advocated by Mr Henderson Snr that contains the astringent potion appears in Fergus's celebrated cookbook Nose to Tail Eating. The formula in the book for the "Dr Henderson" (an honorific bestowed by a Parisian bartender, who mixed up both the drink and the name of its consumer) consists of two parts Fernet-Branca to one part crème de menthe, though Mr Henderson Snr advocates a ratio of 7:1. "Mix together with ice and drink," wrote Fergus. "Do not be put off by the colour." In his sequel Beyond Nose to Tail, Fergus included a recipe for Dr Henderson ice-cream, but this did not impress his father. "I was none too pleased," said Mr Henderson Snr. "It devalued the currency."

"What's the ice-cream like?"

"Not to my taste."

The distinctive label surmounted by an eagle that bears some similarity to The Independent's eagle (except that it carries a bottle rather than a newspaper) declares that Fernet-Branca only contains "ingredienti naturali ed esorici" (natural and exotic ingredients). The truth of this statement was borne out by a display of 40-odd materials that might be found in a wizard's lair. Unsurprisingly, many came from the bitter end of the taste spectrum. They included such rarities as dried Chinese rhubarb (large, brown chunks of dried rhizome quite unlike the familiar stalk), white agaric (lumps of chalky fungus), cinchona (a source of quinine), aloes (a spice synonymous with bitterness), zedoary (described as "similar to ginger but with a bitter aftertaste") and myrrh, which is crystallised, aromatic sap. But perhaps the most surprising ingredient is saffron. Fernet-Branca is a leading buyer of the world's most expensive spice. Every year, "a few tons" are incorporated in the drink, where it is mainly detectable as a yellow smear left when a glass is emptied.

Formulated by Maria Branca in 1845 (the "Fernet" bit means "body cleanser"), it was initially intended to treat female ailments. Comely consumers delicately sip the stuff in early advertisements (Fergus prefers the down-in-one approach). As a medicine, albeit one that was over 40 per cent alcohol by volume, Fernet-Branca escaped Prohibition in the US. The company is still family owned. Once every six months, Count Nicolo Branca visits the factory and mixes up a batch from a secret formula. "These days he uses a computer," said export manager Enzo Vogliol. "The ingredients are no secret. The secret lies in the quantities." When extracts have been made from the recondite ingredients, they are combined with alcohol and left to mature in acacia barrels for a year.

Today, the Argentines consume so much (15 million litres per year, almost all drunk with Coca-Cola) that they have their own factory in Buenos Aires. In Scandinavia, it has become fashionable to consume Fernet-Branca as a shot accompanying a glass of beer. Two bars in Trondheim sell over 3,000 bottles a year, which is around one-tenth of total UK consumption. "You don't have a taste for bitter things," shrugged Mr Voglioni. Viewing the 3-litre bottle on the table of a Milanese restaurant with unalloyed delight, Fergus did his best to disprove this view of our wimpish taste: "A spot more would go down rather well."

I liked the drink in Milan, though it does deliver a shock to the system akin to a biff on the beezer. Back home, I found myself less keen, though this might have been due to my companions. "Ah can't sweak," grimaced Mrs W after taking a mouthful onboard. When life returned to her larynx, she added: "I can feel it going down. You know it's a complex drink. You can taste all sorts of things going off in your head."

"Want any more?"

"You're on your own with that."

My friend Matthew, though by means averse to most alcoholic beverages, shared her antipathy. "Collis Brown!" he gasped. "By the hell, it's horrid ... Could grow on you though." But I noticed that the level in his glass did not decline after his initial sip. The 7:1 Dr Henderson proved far more acceptable. "I can manage two gulps of that," said Mrs W. For Fernet-Branca companionship, I may need to return to Milan – or possibly St John.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Bid Manager, London

£45000 - £60000 per annum: Charter Selection: Charter Selection are working wi...

Marketing Executive

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Charter Selection: Charter Selection are working wi...

Senior IT Systems Engineer - Southampton - £28k - £34K + bens

£28000 - £34000 per annum + pension, flexitime, healthcare: Deerfoot IT Resour...

Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

£33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The daily catch-up: what if Hillary sticks, drowning sorrows and open sesame

John Rentoul
 

i Deputy Editor's Letter:

Independent Voices, Indy Voices Rhodri Jones
Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor