How delightful it can be to let oneself sink into the arms of an old favourite. Book, of course, in this case, but it can be fraught with the perils of any old favourite. Story too predictable, plot twists too well known, the unreliable narrator as familiar as an old drunken uncle, and the jokes, oh the jokes, worn quite threadbare.
Did I experience this ennui in my most recent re-reading of James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking with Fernet Branca? Well no, and I think the main reason is that Gerald Samper, the aforesaid unreliable narrator, has such an hilarious style, a combination of snobbish pomposity and a ridiculous lack of self knowledge, that he continues to be amusing.
The book is a parody of the ‘we moved to Tuscany, renovated a sweet little abbey, cottage, castle (take your pick), and learned how to cook local foods with the help of a wise old peasant.’
In Gerald’s case no-one can teach him a thing about cooking. He has a unique culinary style: ice-cream with garlic, mussels in chocolate, otter with langoustines and his aptly named Alien Pie, of which the chief ingredient is cat. All liberally covered with rich sauces of which the main ingredient is Fernet Branca, an overwhelmingly bitter Italian digestif.
Gerald is a ghost-writer for racing car drivers, pop singers and so on, and needs the quiet of his mountain fastness to concentrate on his work. He also prides himself on his light tenor voice and likes to sing his favourite arias in private.
But, and this is the key theme of this book, his peaceful life is ripped apart by a new neighbour, the Voynovian, Marta, who proves to be a rival in singing and in cooking.
Here we see Gerald’s first encounter with Voynovian cuisine:
With a flourish she plonked before me a gross sausage the colour of rubber-wear and as full of lumps as a prison mattress….
‘Is shonka,’ I think she said, resting her breasts on the table on either side of her own plate.
Smiling weakly I made the good guest’s obligatory ‘mm’ noises and gingerly poked it with the point of my knife. There was the sound of a boil being lanced. A spurt of boiling fat shot across the table and even on that late June evening my spectacles misted over. The contents of the sausage, bright red with paprika, lay before me like an anatomy lesson.
I’ll leave you to find out for yourselves which of these diabolical cooks comes out on top.
If you don’t know the work of James Hamilton-Paterson here is an interview with Lyn Barber from the Guardian of 2006: