Saturday, November 19, 2022

Weekend Cooking/Cook the Books: Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Patterson

It's fair to say that if this book hadn't been chosen as a selection over at Cook the Books, I probably would not have read it.  I don't read a lot of satireor farce at the best of times and I wasn't familiar with the bitter Italian digestif named in the title. Having read the book I am not sure that I am in a hurry to try the drink when we head to Italy soon. However, there were times when I smiled and even laughed so you have to call that a success for a book that is aiming to be funny.

Professional writer and quintessential Englishman Gerald Samper has moved to the Tuscan countryside in search of one things - solitude. His plan is to be as creative as possible - whether it be experimenting with new recipes, getting ready for his next job, redecorating his house all the while singing with great gusto. Gerald believes he is a great cook, a great writer, and a great singer. 

His neighbour Marta has similarly been promised peace and solitude whilst she work on composing a film score for a very famous Italian director who may or may not be making a very raunchy movie. Marta is the daughter of a crime lord from the former Soviet area known as Voynovia, and as the novel progresses her family ties begin to impact her life in Tuscany. Marta does not think Gerry is a good cook or a good singer. I suspect the jury is still out on his writing!

It doesn't take long for the neighbours to take issue with each other. She thinks he is rude and arrogant. He thinks she is persistently drunk on Fernet Branca. A series of mishaps and misunderstandings keep bringing the two together, constantly butting heads, particularly when the arrival of a helicopter scares off the subject of Gerry's next biography.

This is a book about food. It's just not edible food. Actually, that's not precisely true either. A better way of describing it is probably that it is just not food that many people would choose to eat. There are so many examples of disgusting sounding food, but a lot of it is based off of normal recipes. For example, here is what Gerald's had to say about his Fish Cake:

Fish Cake

No - we are not talking about exquisite fish and potato patties rolled in breadcrumbs and fried, that classic of English cuisine. This is a good deal more exotic, a Gerald Samper creation designed, as any work of art must be, to remind us that the world is an unexpected place full of unfamiliar challenges. I perfected it while compiling a small volume provisionally entitled The Boys' Reformatory Cookbook whose witty asides proved too much for the fifteen hidebound UK publishers I tried to interest before I lost faith in the project. (The typescript joined many others in my bottom drawer that together constitute the graveyard of my literary hopes. These include the libretto for a delightful and lubricious operetta, Veitato ai Minori, that I now despair of ever seeing set to music, ditto my ballet Jizzell.)


377 gm self-raising flour
151 gm semolina
62 gm cornmeal
149 gm granulated sugar
83 gm unsalted butter
1 1/2 eggs
1 tinned mackerel (about 74 gms)
Grated peel of 1 lemon
99 gm freshly ground almonds
26 gm sultanas
Pinch of black pepper
2 tablespoons plain yoghurt (optional)

Needless to say, even with icing made from "226 gm icing sugar mixed with 2 tablespoons Fernet Branca" Marta was not a fan. And that's by far not the worst thing that he makes. There are recipes that include various household pets, exotic animals and more.

I must say I was somewhat surprised to see that this is the first book in a trilogy featuring Gerald Samper. This book was also nominated for the Booker prize back in 2004.

When I was thinking about what to make from this book, I did contemplate doing a fish cake. No, not the recipe above - more a normal cake shaped like a fish, but I ended up deciding on making something that I have never made before. 

He is stuffing greedily from the plate of mavlisi I have given him, the last of the ones Ljuka brought me from home. I suppose you might say they are the Voynovian equivalent of florentines, although that scarely does them justice. These are the very best, from Mrszowski's in Voynograd. He selects the one we call "acorn": a pigeon's egg pickled in spearmint water, its base nestled in a delicate pastry cup, and pops it into his mouth.

I don't have a ready supply of pigeon's eggs to try and recreate an acorn mavlisi so instead, I have made florentines. I did recall that I have seen them made on Great British Bakeoff at least once, so this is Mary Berry's recipe:


50g/1¾oz butter
50g/1¾oz demerara sugar
50g/1¾oz golden syrup
50g/1¾oz plain flour
25g/1oz dried cranberries or glacé cherries, finely chopped
50g/1¾oz candied peel, finely chopped
25g/1oz almonds, finely chopped
25g/1oz walnut pieces, finely chopped
200g/7oz plain chocolate (70% cocoa solids)

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Line three baking trays with baking parchment or silicon sheets.

Measure the butter, sugar and syrup into a small pan and heat gently until the butter is melted. Remove from the heat and add the flour, chopped cranberries or cherries, candied peel and nuts to the pan. Stir well to mix.

Make 18 florentines by spooning six teaspoonfuls of the mixture on to each of the prepared baking trays, leaving plenty of room for them to spread during cooking.

Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until golden-brown. Leave the florentines to cool before lifting onto a cooling rack using a palette knife (if the florentines have been baked on greased baking trays, then allow them to harden for a few moments only before lifting onto cooling racks to cool completely). If the florentines become too hard to remove, then pop them back into the oven for a few minutes to allow them to soften.

Set a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water, without letting the bowl touch the water. Temper the chocolate by breaking half of the chocolate into the bowl. Stir until the chocolate reaches a melting temperature of 53C/127F. Meanwhile, finely chop or grate the remaining chocolate.

Carefully remove the bowl from the pan, add the rest of the chocolate and stir gently until the chocolate has cooled to 26C/79F.

Spread a little melted chocolate over the flat base of each florentine and leave to cool slightly before marking a zigzag in the chocolate with a fork. Leave to set, chocolate side up on a cooling rack. Store in an airtight container.

I am really looking forward to the next Cook the Books selection which is Miss Cecily's Recipes for Exceptional Ladies by Vicky Zimmerman.

I am also sharing this post with Foodies Reads over at Based on a True Story.

Weekly meals

Saturday - 
Sunday -  Roast pork and gravy rolls
Monday - Mexican Chicken and Rice
Tuesday - 
Wednesday - Pork chops, mash, gravy broccoli and carrots
Thursday - Chicken Massaman Curry Pie
Friday - Takeaway

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book reviews (novel, nonfiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs, restaurant reviews, travel information, or fun food facts. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page


  1. Good choice of recipe for this read. I went with a cocktail and it was pretty tasty if you, like me, are a fan of bitters. I started the next CTB selection yesterday. I am enjoying it.

  2. Yum! You can't go wrong with Florentines (or Mary Berry!) The book sounds "interesting" (LOL)

  3. I skipped this Cook the Books selection, as I couldn't find a copy. I hope to get back to the group read next time.

    The Florentines sound fantastic!

  4. As Blogger is being a pain when commenting, I have to go "incognito" to leave a comment!
    Now I want to make salmon cakes! This book sounds strange.

  5. the florentines look lovely and I'm sure taste delicious.I'm not much of a baker, but I can still appreciate a good cookie.

  6. Florentines were mentioned a couple of times and I thought about making these. I just could not get inspired by this novel.

  7. Glad the book made you laugh, Marg. I like your description of the recipes as "just not food that many people would choose to eat." I am sure, however, that many people would choose to enjoy your Florentines. Thank you so much for your contribution to this edition of Cook the Books :)

  8. A perfectly delicious choice! I’ve saved the recipe to make myself asap!

  9. I too was stymied what to make based on this book, but your idea of the Florentines is great. You can't beat a Mary Berry recipe although I have to say recent episodes of the Great British Baking show have been lackluster

  10. I just commented & the system prevented me from ID'ing myself. I'm Cathy Branciaroli/Delaware Girl Eats