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Thursday, April 12, 2012

James Hamilton-Paterson -- Cooking With Fernet Branca

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    


Chapter 1.

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
Soy sauce
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.

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