Cooking With Fernet-Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

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 probablyΒ  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!

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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.


30 mussels
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
Lemon juice
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten

Buy mussels that are already cleaned, saving yourself 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.

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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!



26 thoughts on “Cooking With Fernet-Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

  1. It seems a whole different age today from 1996 when Frances Mayes published Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy.
    Book that for whatever reason never read until finding it for a little over a dollar at a used bookstore some three years ago, started to read, then moved, and I am sure the book its here with me somewhere, perhaps at the bottom of the numerous boxes with books I posses…

    Well you made me laugh a lot with your review, its hilarious, yes lot of people specially those who rarely cook, unless you are some sort very jaded, and adventurous palate, to come with ideas such as the ones you describe.

    Thank you, I may want to dig on a few boxes for the darn’t book, but do not bet on it! πŸ™‚


  2. Great idea to have mussels and chocolate “deconstructed” lol! I always dreamt I’d find myself in an Irish cottage where I’d have a small cottage garden cook ramps and make custards or some sort. I haven’t given it too much thought beyond that…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Living in a cottage in the wilds sounds fantastic, although my cottage would probably be closer to the sea. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. This was a really funny book, and of course anything with satire, I love.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. …confession of my own worst culinary… over-adventuresome-ness: a certain pizza. Which, in such a genuinely pleasure-some, comical, almost Dada context, as it was though, was perfect. (That story of Neopolitan hyper-kitsch on a cold February eve in the north Milanese hinterland, another time.) I ordered a, for the hell of it: amaretti pizza. As in the sweet cookies mixed into the dough. Kind of American as a concept, which, seeing as I am, was also in line. Easily the worst pizza of my life, by a very, very looong shot. But… the idea is fun. Bad idea recipes. Steak braised in a marshmallow sauce. Fried shrimp with a peanut butter and sour cream dip. With passion fruit. Black raspberry and uncleaned fish liver pie. With passion fruit. …(I, to, tried but could never actually figure out the after-dinner bitter thing here. People still do it. I mean, a good grappa, sure, but Fernet or Lucano or such… bleah. I’d rather have the pizza again. With, hoho, passion fruit. And marshmallow sauce…


    1. Amaretti pizza dough sounds horrendous. πŸ˜‰ But I commend you for being adventurous. And I’m with you on the Fernet-Branca, too. Horribly bitter. I know tastes can be acquired and I acquired one for Cinzano, but Fernet-Branca is out. Ick.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. …Cinzano… always brings to mind Breaking Away… so I suppose even I don’t like it, the recollections make it a pleasure. (sort of like Motta Panettone, preferably if dry. Because for most of my childhood my father would buy them from Italian delis, discounted, likely because they’d been in storage for a year. It wasn’t until… my late 20’s did I realize that Panettone is actually soft. Despite that, I still prefer – also because I’m not actually a fan. Much ado about little, by compare – the slightly stale year-old cakes. Then you dunk the slices in about a gallon of milk and coffee… a better way to fill your mouth than with any bitter, Fernet or other….)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That reminds me of when I was in Italy and we ate almond biscotti dipped in something called vino cantucci. Apologies if my spelling is wrong. But they were so hard that you had to dip them into something to soften them up. In fact, I remember an evening at a wonderful trattoria in Bologna, very far off the tourist track, that seemed to be completely populated with natives. This wonderful elderly gentleman was dipping his bread into his red wine. I asked him, in my very mediocre Italian, if that was a custom and he said no that he did it because he had bad teeth. It made me laugh but our waitress told me that it is actually fairly common practice. I can well imagine that dipping some lovely bread in a good red wine would be a much preferable thing to put into your mouth, than some bitters, as you would say. 😊

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Love mussels but never had them with chocolate before. πŸ˜‰ Just kidding. They look so yum and of course, that dessert looks luscious! The book itself sounds really funny too. Great post as usual!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s pretty satirical. I think you would appreciate it as well. And as always, thank you for the support and the compliment. The mussels came out quite delicious, if I do say so myself.


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