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Man Booker Prize
2004 longlist

Buy this book

Cooking with Fernet Branca
James Hamilton-Paterson


Rune Gellein

Fernet Branca is an Italian specialty. It is a spiced liquor similar to 'Gammel Dansk' and to a lesser degree the German 'Jegermeister'. Fernet Branca is however more of an acquired taste then its two siblings. Gerald Samper's cooking, using Fernet Branca in anything from ice cream to smoked cat, is according to Marta, the other main character in the book, also an acquired taste. Although you get the feeling that 'acquired taste' in this case is a bit of a euphemism (eg. look out for the dish called 'Alien Pie').

The two main characters alternate every few chapters in telling the story. Each section is clearly marked 'Gerald' or 'Marta' to make reading easier. Like the author, both characters are from an upper middle-class background, Gary takes pride in being a 'Shropshire Samper', while Marta is from a landowning family in the made-up former soviet republic of Voynovia. Her family managed to hold on to their land because her father was a colonel in a KGB unit.

Gerry is a writer of celebrity biographies and Marta a composer currently involved in creating the score for a new film by a famous Italian film director. In order to get peace and quiet for their creative activity, they have both bought a small house in the hills in Tuscany. The two of them have lots in common, including curiosity and a strong liking for Fernet Branca. The peace and quiet is therefore quickly broken.

James Hamilton-Paterson is a reasonably prolific author and has written books in almost any genre you care to mention. Novels, children's books, poetry, documentary books as well as political books ('America's Boy' about the Marcos family in the Philippines). He has lived the last few years mostly between the Philippines and Tuscany. So he clearly knows the area he's writing about as well as the foreigners who tend to buy houses there.

The book is first and foremost a comedy, and a very successful one at that. You might overlook some of the well-placed punches he throws while falling around around laughing. The typical British holidaymaker, vegetarians, environmentalists and boy bands are all subject to James Hamilton-Paterson's sharp but seriously funny pen. He is almost convincing when Gerry claim beetroots and potatoes can feel pain (the author has previously written about the pain fish feels in connection to fishing on the reefs in the Philippines).

You get the feeling there is more of a thought through argument, though, in the way the film director explain the plot in his film to Marta. The film they are making is about a group of environmentalists setting up a fishing commune and how they turn racist when an immigrant fisherman fails to follow their ways. As the film director explain 'There is a deeply bourgeois streak in green idealism'. Well said, although I hasten to emphasise you wouldn't read this book for its insights into politics or anything much else and especially not cooking.

The plot is not terribly important, and you are also too busy laughing to notice any particular flaws in the construction of the two main characters. Gerry is maybe the clearest one. He fancies himself as a genius cook and DIY expert, as well as an author. He is completely without self-critical faculties, so Marta's character is useful in showing Gerry's deficiencies for us. In an interview in the Guardian James Hamilton-Paterson says he is surprised about how funny people find his book. The author has obviously enjoyed writing the book so much he has completely forgotten his readers would also be very pleased with this work.

 
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