if you've never read this, you must. It is the funniest thing I've ever (ever) read. Run, don't walk, to your favorite bookstore or library and acquire it. Be prepared to laugh. Have tissues handy.
Cooking With Fernet Branca
If you will insist on arriving at Pisa airport in the summer you will probably have to fight your way out of the terminal building past incoming sun-reddened Brits, snappish with clinking luggage. They are twenty minutes late for their Ryanair cheapo return to Stansted ("I said carry your sister's bloody bag, Crispin, not drag it. If we miss this flight your life won't be worth living ..."). Ignoring them and once safely outside, you can retrieve your car in leisurely fashion from the long-term park and hit the northbound motorway following the "Genova" signs. Within a mere twenty minutes you are off again at the Viareggio exit. Don't panic: you are not destined for the beach which stretches its tottering crop of sun umbrellas like poison-hued mushrooms for miles of unexciting coastline. No. You are heading safely inland through the little town of Camaiore.
Abruptly the road starts to climb into the Apuan Alps: great crags and slopes thick with chestnut forest and peaks the colour of weathered marble-which is mostly what they are. After some tortuous hairpins you will come to the village of Casoli, whose apparent surliness is probably owing to its having watched outlying portions of itself disappear into the valley below every few years in winter landslides. Carry on through and up. More forest, broken at the hairpins by spectacular views. Restored stone houses with Alpine fripperies tacked on (shutters with heart-shaped holes) and Bavarian-registered BMWs parked outside. Keep going: the world is still sucking at your heels but you are leaving it behind. Up and up, until even the warbling blue Lazzi buses are deterred and turn round in a specially asphalted area. Not far beyond is what looks like a cart track. Follow this for a hundred metres and you will come upon an area known as Le Rocce and the house I have rashly bought. Even more rashly, I am trying to make it habitable while at the same time attempting to earn a living by writing a commissioned book too ludicrous for further mention. The view, though, is amazing. As we British are so fond of saying, the three most important things about a house are Position, Position and Position. (For some reason Americans call it "location".) The British say this with a wise smile, as if imparting an original insight culled from years of experience and reflection rather than repeating a stale piece of businessman's wisdom they have heard in a dozen pubs. Whatever you think of this particular house, you have to admit it's got Position coming out of its ears. Apart from a portion of stone roof barely visible through the trees some way off, there is solitude in every direction.
You're not tired from your journey? Well, I am; so I set about preparing a little something suited to what will be the grand panorama from the terrace once the prehistoric privy overhanging the gulf has been removed. Great swathes of mountainside. Between them, lots of blue air with circling buzzards and a distant view of Viareggio and the sea. On a clear day the small island of Gorgona is visible; on a really clear day, I'm told, Corsica. So what shall it be? Something at once marine and disdainful, I fancy, to show how much we care for local frutti di mare and how little for rented beach umbrellas and ice creams. Here we are, then:
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.)
2 dozen fresh mussels, shelled and cleaned
Good quantity olive oil
100 gm finely grated Valrhona dark chocolate
You will need quite a lot of olive oil because you are going to deep-fry the mussels, and no, that bright green stuff claiming to be Extra-Special First Pressing Verginissimo olive oil with a handwritten parchment label isn't necessary. Anyway, how can there possibly be degrees of virginity? Olive oil snobs are even worse than wine snobs. You're far better off, not least financially, with ordinary local stuff that has been cut in the traditional fashion with maize oil, machine oil, green dye etc. Heat this until small bubbles appear (before it begins to seethe). Toss in a good handful of fresh rosemary. Meanwhile, dunk each mussel in soy sauce and roll it in the bitter chocolate. (Unlike the oil, the chocolate must be of the best possible quality. If it even crosses your mind to use Cadbury's Dairy Milk you should stop reading this book at once and give it to a charity shop. You will learn nothing from it.) Put the mussels in the deep-fryer basket and plunge them into the oil. Exactly one minute and fifty seconds later lift them out, drain them on kitchen paper and shake them into a bowl of pale porcelain to set off their rich mahogany colour. Listen to how agreeably they rustle! Most people are surprised by their sound, which is not unlike that of dead leaves in a gutter. This is because of the interesting action of soy sauce on chocolate at high temperatures. Now pour yourself a cold glass of Nastro Azzurro beer and, mussels to hand, find a seat from which the privy can't be seen. Gaze out over your domain and reflect on the Arrivals queue at Stansted airport where even now the mulish Crispin is taking it out on his sister by treading down the backs of her trainers. Enjoy.
The day has dawned bright in every sense and I am making good progress up a ladder painting the kitchen-the most important room in the house-in contrasting shades of mushroom and eau de Nil. Anyone can do the white-walls-and-black-beams bit, but it takes aesthetic confidence and an original mind to make something of a Tuscan mountain farmhouse that isn't merely Frances Mayes. It also takes a complete absence of salt-of-the-earth peasants and their immemorial aesthetic input. It is all rather heartening and as I work I break cheerfully into song. I have been told by friendly cognoscenti that I have a pleasant light tenor, and I am just giving a Rossini aria a good run for its money when suddenly a voice shouts up from near my ankles: "Excuse, please. I am Marta. Is open your door, see, and I am come." I break off at "tutte le norme vigenti" and look down to find a shock of frizzy hair with an upturned sebaceous face at its centre.
This is ominous, but I descend with an exemplary display of patience. Michelangelo, busy with Adam's finger on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, would have been similarly miffed to be told he was wanted on the phone. The stocky lady is apologetic and claims to be my neighbour, feels strongly we should be acquainted, has come bearing an ice-breaking bottle of Fernet Branca. My heart sinks during these explanations and still further as I find myself sitting at the table sniffing cautiously at the Fernet, a drink whose charm is discreeter even than that of the bourgeoisie, being black and bitter. I'd always thought people only ever drank it for hangovers. Seeing no way out I admit to being Gerald Samper while refraining from adding "One of the Shropshire Sampers", which, while true, would obviously be wasted on her. "I disturb," says Marta confidently as I cast my eyes towards the unfinished ceiling. "No, no," I lie feebly. "One can always do with a break." I am kicking myself for having underestimated the threat posed by that glimpse of stone roof some way off. Months ago my specious little agent, Signor Benedetti, told me it belonged to a house lived in only for a month each year by "a mouse-quiet foreigner". Having made sure he didn't mean a fellow Briton I dismissed the whole matter and, indeed, had practically forgotten that my splendid tranquillity might be compromised by a neighbour.
What can I say now about this person who, during most of a long, hot summer and for much of the ensuing long, hot autumn, becomes the principal bane of my life, or primo pesto, as I expect they say in Chiantishire? In this role Marta faces formidable competition from Italian bureaucrats and enforcers of building regulations, but she outclasses them easily. I gather she comes from somewhere in that confused area between the Pripet Marshes and the Caucasus. My ignorance of geography, I ought to point out, knows no bounds and hence no frontiers.
"Is that Poland?" I hazard.
Marta looks profoundly shocked.
"Er ... Belarus?"
She thumps the table. Her bangles jangle.
"Sort of Latvia way?" I try despairingly.
She fixes me with large dark eyes which, I now notice, have fragments of glittery material adhering to their upper lids. "No," she says fiercely, "I am Voyde, puremost of blood. Yes! We of Voynovia are Christians when Slavs and Russians still barbars much more even than today. I tell you history. Many five hundred years ..."
I tune out at this point, staring sadly at my empty glass and feeling the paint splashes drying on my arms. In a kind of rueful dull rage I curse myself for weakness. Who but an over-mannerly British gent would allow himself to be interrupted in the middle of painting a ceiling in order to be harangued in his own kitchen by a perfect stranger speaking abominable English? Weak, weak, weak. Well, this time the worm is going to turn. I am regrettably going to have to take a very firm hand with Marta, if only she will stop talking. Fragments of her speech snag my attention, like carrier-bags floating down the River Vistula. Apparently Voynovia is one of those enclaves that was on the fringes of the Holy Roman Empire and ruled for centuries by Margraves or Electors or something, clinging to its ethnic identity through thick and thin: thick being represented by the Soviet era and thin by the post-Soviet era. The more Marta talks, the more I can see every excuse for those unsung Margraves' despotism. I wish to acquaint her with knouts.
"So we will becoming close here, you and me," she is saying. "I love you British queens and kings tradition. I want to learn. I want to learn you all of Voynovia, the fooding number one of all. Voynovian fooding best in all Europa, best in all of world. Is ... mm." She kisses her fingertips in a frightful gesture probably copied from a Maurice Chevalier film. "But you will learn me other things, yes, Gerree?"
For a chill moment I imagine her voice suggests a leer, then reject this as absurd. I am surely not especially good-looking, although discerning people naturally recognize that a certain refinement of manner and mind can more than compensate for a trivial lack of Adonis-like qualities. I scarcely think this frizzy-haired frump slurping Fernet Branca at my kitchen table at ten o'clock in the morning is even on nodding terms with refinement.
"Tonight you will come at dinner."
"Oh, no, er ..." I hear myself temporizing. I am thinking of the treat I have promised myself-a dish of poached salmon with wild cherry sauce which I modestly claim is not the least successful of my little inspirations. "No, perhaps not tonight."
"OK, tomorrow," she says with the implacability of a JCB sinking its scoop in a trench. "You may bringing your wife." It is her parting shot. This time there can be no doubt about the leer, which lingers on the air behind her like the Cheshire Cat's grin. She obviously doesn't believe I have a wife. And why not, might I ask? I could easily have one. At any moment during the past hour a wholesome creature like Felicity Kendal in The Good Life could have wandered down the stairs, spattered with distemper, to counter the Fernet with a bottle of homemade nettle wine. It is entirely presumptuous of Marta to make such an airy assumption.
I wearily pick up the paintbrush which has stiffened into a birch-twig besom. As I climb back up the ladder I notice that quite half the contents of the bottle she brought have gone. Rather disgusting, the way she tucked into her own present. I resume painting. It is hot up here and the ceiling seems to sway a little. I do not at all feel like singing now. The truth is, this neighbourly intrusion has had an upsetting effect on me and I really feel I shall have to go and lie down. This I do; and such is the strain that Marta's visit has produced in me that I fall unconscious for several hours and awake with a headache to find much of the day has vanished. I fully intended to give the recipe for my salmon-in-cherries dish here because like any true creative artist I am eager for a little sliver of immortality. But alas the moment has passed and immortality will have to be postponed.
Next morning I awake in a spirit of mischief, more than a little goaded by the thought of having let myself in for dinner with the ghastly Marta while under the influence of Fernet Branca. Being properly brought up, I'm unable to go out even on unwelcome social occasions without bearing a gift of sorts, so I shall have to think of something. Thank goodness I'm going by myself. Sometimes in the company of others I find a disagreeable spirit of competitiveness kicks in and each person is shamed into spending rather more than he would have wished. This is a historically established syndrome, of course. One Magus going to Bethlehem would probably have sprung for a box of After Eights. Three Magi on the same trip found themselves laden with gold, frankincense and myrrh and bitterly contemplating their overdrafts.
So to the mischief. What shall it be? Rossini-come to my aid! And he does, bless him. Only a few bars into "Vedi la data indicata" I remember he was himself an excellent cook who invented several original dishes (Tournedos Rossini being only one) and had a predilection for ice cream. Ice cream, eh? It being hot in Tuscany in late June, even up here in the mountains, I reason one can't go far wrong bearing home-made ice cream to a dinner. I further reason that Marta requires something punitive to remind her not to make a habit of these neighbourly invitations. So what better than
Garlic and Fernet Branca Ice Cream
15 large cloves of garlic
Put the garlic and the sugar into a blender and empty over them the remains of a bottle of Fernet Branca with paint splashes on its label. This will yield a curious compound the colour of Iodex, which older readers will remember as an embrocation made from seaweed extract that sporty school-boys used to rub on their little stiffnesses. Whip the cream, but only until it starts to thicken. Then stir in the Iodex mixture. An attractive tawny shade emerges while the garlic note brings tears to the eyes. Excellent. Pot it and leave in the fridge for an hour. Then turn it into your ice cream freezer and proceed as usual. When going out to dinner with someone you would be relieved to learn had died during the course of the day, remove the ice cream as you leave the house. It will have the consistency of a brick but by 10 p.m. will have softened just enough to become the evening's pièce d'occasion. If after that she ever invites you round again, you are in very much worse trouble than you thought. Oh, and a spray of fennel embedded in the surface looks well.
By now I am in an ice cream sort of mood so with the fennel right to hand on the chopping board I knock up a batch of Fennel and Strawberry Ice Cream for myself. This particular glace à la Samper is definitely one of my entries for the immortality stakes. It is a sensational combo and I urge you to try it out on friends and make them guess what it is. They may think of Pernod because of the aniseedy taste, yet if you do make Pernod and Strawberry Ice Cream it tastes quite different. Fennel and Strawberry actually tastes green, while looking puce (use the stalks and foliage rather than the bulb).
It's the first in a hilarious and wonderfully written trilogy. Hamilton-Paterson is a wonder.
NY Times Review: link