Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tuscany, LOL!

There are just a few places where I imagine spending my retirement years. The beaches of Boracay is one, and the rolling hills of Tuscany is another. The sumptuous food and wine, the glorious weather, the wonderful scenery! How can you go wrong with living in Tuscany! But in James Hamiton-Paterson's hilarious Booker-nominated novel, Cooking with Fernet Branca, Tuscany becomes the setting where everything goes wrong.

In Cooking with Fernet Branca, we meet two of the most hysterically funny characters in recent fiction -- Gerald Samper and Marta. Gerald, a Brit who ghostwrites celebrity biographies, has a fascination for a cuisine one might say is experimental. Marta, a native of the ex-Soviet republic called Voynovia, is a composer, working on the score for the film of a famous Italian director. Gerald and Marta are neighbors, much to each other's chagrin. Here's a sample of a dish that Gerald made for himself. Try not to be queasy. (There are a lot of these dreadful recipes in the book!)
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 quality 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. . . [page 15]
Hamilton-Paterson's novel is a comedy of errors in the craziest sense. Marta believes that Gerald loves the horrible alcoholic drink fernet branca so much that she lets him drink lots of it. Gerald, on the other hand, feels that his obligation to drink up as much as he can of that awful stuff, thinking that Marta likes the drink too. Now bring in coke-addicted drug stars, crazy family members, and a famed porn director and his son, and you've got a very rowdy mix of a story that Hamilton-Paterson expertly handles.

One feels that Hamilton-Paterson parodied the expat's life in this corner of Italy. It's a very successful attempt, with Gerald coming off as the stereotypical prudish Brit who feels entitled to the promise of solitude and beauty that Tuscany can offer. He has the habit of singing arias and other operatic pieces despite his little knowledge of the lyrics and the wanting quality of his voice. Marta uses Gerald's singing in the film. When Gerald first hears the score, he feels that the music is "vaguely familiar."

Cooking with Fernet Branca is a fun novel. It's the kind of novel that you read on a lazy Sunday afternoon when you think you can use a good laugh. And Hamilton-Paterson does bring in the gags. The novel is one comedic scene after another, with the reader relating to either Gerald or Marta. Read it, dear reader. You'll weep with delight.

Read this book if:
  1. You like parodies of famous travel books (Under the Tuscan's Son!).
  2. You're taste in food is also experimental.
  3. You'll read anything set in Tuscany.