This book is hilariously funny, riffing satirically on those chick-lit memoirs from the early 2000s in which a heroine ends up living abroad, usually Italy or France, renovates a house, learns to cook, falls in love, and finds herself, though not necessarily in that order.
The book Under The Tuscan Sun is referenced often, but the other book I was reminded of was the highly annoying Eat, Pray, Love, that also detailed a woman’s “journey into self.” Gag. It was gushingly made into a film with the also highly annoying Julia Roberts and the absolutely gorgeous Javier Bardem, who is welcome to eat crackers in bed with me at any time.
In this case, Cooking with Fernet-Branca turns the heroine into a hero, in the character of Gerald Samper, a British expatriate (and as an aside, why do we call Brits and Americans living in foreign countries “expatriates” and yet people who come here to the States or to Great Britain are referred to as “immigrants”? Food for thought……pardon the pun).
Anyway, Gerald is a dreadful snob who ghostwrites biographies for celebrities, and loves to cook gourmand meals. The problem is, his concept of gourmet cooking is horrible. For example, he is given a bottle of Fernet-Branca by the loquacious Marta, his neighbor on the run from a Mafia crime lord. Fernet-Branca, if you’ve never had it, is a terribly bitter, herb-based liqueur much loved in Italy. Gerald proceeds to create a dessert of garlic and Fernet-Branca flavored ice cream, reveling in his own unique style of cooking.
What makes this book so funny and satirical is that it takes all of the tropes of this chick-lit genre and holds them up so clearly to show the pure pretentiousness of all of these women who go to Italy and find themselves “under a Tuscan’s son.” (Not that there is anything wrong with finding yourself under a Tuscan’s son.) Gerald and Marta are each other’s intellectual and culinary equals, and the story is told from their dual viewpoints, giving us a glimpse of how ridiculous the other really is.
Gerald loves to sing, horribly off-key, as he goes about renovating his Italian villa, and Marta, who is actually an Eastern European composer, begins using his dreadful songs in her own music, which is hysterical reading when Gerald also hears it and is horrified, not realizing the music and verse and voice are his own donkey-braying.
I tried a small shot of Fernet-Branca when in Italy a few years ago, and still recall the shudder that went through me when I swallowed down the bitter, herbal hit of alcohol. It’s probably something one could acquire a taste for, like Campari and Pernod. But even the bouquet of Fernet-Branca is vile, making one wonder exactly how it would taste in a garlic-flavored ice cream. I’m game to try if you are!
Anyway, one of the more amusing dishes Gerald whips up are his mussels in chocolate sauce.
Mussels in chocolate. You flinch? But that’s only because you are gastronomically unadventurous. Your Saturday evening visits to the Koh-i-Noor Balti House do not count. These days conveyor-belt curry is as safe a taste as Mozart.
I had absolutely no intention of making mussels cooked in chocolate. But there’s nothing wrong with making some lovely mussels in a garlic, parsley and white wine sauce, and then having a nice, decadent chocolate dessert. So that’s what I made.
This is the method that worked for me, based on this marvelous mussels recipe from the New York Times by David Tanis, one of the best cooks out there. The chocolate dessert was based on Nigella Lawson’s recipe for Chocohotopots from her terrific cookbook Feast, which are little baked chocolate molten cakes eaten hot and oozing chocolatey goodness straight out of the oven. The flavor tweaks in both the mussels and the chocolate pots are straight from me.
8 cloves garlic
1 large shallot, finely minced
1 pinch cayenne
Handful fresh parsley
3/4 cup white wine
3/4 cup clam juice
1/2 cup seafood or chicken broth
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
Buy mussels that are already cleaned, saving you much manual labor and irritation. Sort and rinse them well, going by that old rule of thumb to throw away any raw mussels that are open.
Add the garlic, shallot and cayenne in some olive oil in a large cast-iron pot or Dutch oven on your stovetop. Put a sprinkle of sea salt on top, and cook about 10 minutes, until the garlic and shallot are sizzling and have softened.
Put the cleaned mussels into the pan and stir, to get all the flavors combined. Add the wine, clam juice, and broth, stir again, and put the lid on, so the mussels can steam. Stir after 2 minutes, then cover again and let cook another good 15 minutes.
Squeeze in the lemon juice here.
Make sure the mussels have all opened wide in the steam. If any remain closed, throw them away. Remove pan from heat, and then add the beaten egg to the half-and-half, mix together, and stir into the hot mussels in the pan. It makes for a nice, slightly creamy but not heavy, sauce.
Decant the mussels into bowls, sprinkle with lots of parsley, and serve with nice, buttered baguette slices, which are useful for soaking up the fantastic mussel sauce.
If you still have room in your tummy, eat the delectable chocolate pudding cake, which is simply 4 ounces of melted, good-quality dark chocolate and 1 stick of unsalted butter also melted, mixed together with 1 tablespoon vanilla, 1 tablespoon almond extract, 2 eggs, 3/4 cup of sugar, and 3 tablespoons of regular flour, then poured into buttered ramekins and baked at 400F for 20 minutes, and eaten hot. Sooooooo good, and nary a a mussel to be found in the chocolate!