I’m not a great fan of the comic novel. Never have warmed up to Wodehouse, didn’t really get the point of Zuleika Dobson. My craving for the naturalistic rules out the patent artificiality of the genre. Still, for the first 157 pages of Cooking with Fernet Branca I was delighted.
It’s high time that someone lampooned the spate of Tuscano-travel-twaddle that was launched by Frances Mayes‘ Under the Tuscan Sun (though if you see the ultimate source as Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, I won’t argue). And who better to do it than a highly literate Englishman? (That would be Hamilton-Paterson, whose name is so perfect that I suspect him of having made it up.) What better protagonist than a fey, self-conscious Englishman of ambiguous sexual orientation? There he is, planted on a hilltop above the Tuscan coast, feeling superior — until he meets his next-door neighbor, the slatternly Marta, an emigrée from an obscure former Soviet republic.
You don’t really need to know what happens. Just accept that it’s preposterous and good-natured. The title refers to our hero Gerry’s predilection (that’s the kind of word that gets tossed around a lot) for adventurous cuisine. Hamilton-Paterson generously includes recipes for treats like Mussels in Chocolate. Gerry is also very fond of the poisonous liqueur Fernet Branca, a kind of high-brow version of Jägermeister. In other words, tastes vile, packs a punch.
Here’s just one example of the clever-boots writing: “My ignorance of geography, I ought to point out, knows no bounds and hence no frontiers.” Very neat, no?
Eventually, though, I tired of the strenuous high-jinks which include many helicopter landings on the Italian hilltop, a boy band’s orgy in a Viennese roof-top hotel, and a refresher course on the “white telephone” school of Fascist Italian filmmaking. Sequels to Cooking with Fernet Branca are entitled Amazing Disgrace and Rancid Pansies. I’m going to pass.