Another book I mentioned I’d read recently was Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson. I picked it up in Bochum – it was the only book in the small “English” section in the bookshop which looked in the slightest bit interesting.
It was actually very funny, not out-of-this-world special but a good read. Its main character, Gerald, “effete Englishman, culinary adventurer, and ghostwriter to the stars” is an absolute up-his-own-arse tosser. But one of the wonders of the book is that by the end you really come to love him, despite his remaining throughout an up-his-own-arse tosser. His neighbour, Marta, the “ghastly Slavic slut” (she’s actually a marginally famous Voynovian composer, staying in Italy to write the score for a new Pacini film) keeps popping around with bottles of Fernet Branca; Gerald beomes convinced that she’s an alcoholic with a taste for the sickly stuff (Marta, meanwhile, forms the same opinion about him). Actually, Marta has just been donated a crate of the stuff and is desperate to get rid of it somehow. By the end of the book, though, they’re both hooked, but meanwhile Gerald keeps working Fernet Branca into his somewhat avant-garde recipes. Here’s an example of such a recipe (although lacking one of Gerald’s favourite staples, smoked cat), other favourites include “garlic & Fernet Branca ice-cream”, “otter with lobster sauce” and “alien pie”.
No – we are not talking about exquisite fish and potato patties rolled in breadcrumbs and fried, that classic of English cuisine. This is a good deal more exotic, a Gerald Samper creation designed, as any work of art must be, to remind us that the world is an unexpected place full of unfamiliar challenges. I perfected it while compiling a small volume provisionally entitled The Boys’ Reformatory Cookbook whose witty asides proved too much for the fifteen hidebound UK publishers I tried to interest before I lost faith in the project. (The typescript joined many others in my bottom drawer that together constitute the graveyard of my literary hopes. These include the libretto for a delightful and lubricious operetta, Vietato ai Minori, that I now despair of ever seeing set to music, ditto my ballet Jizzelle.)
377 gm self-raising flour
151 gm semolina
62 gm cornmeal
149 gm granulated sugar
83 gm unsalted butter
1 tinned mackerel (about 74 gm)
Grated peel of 1 lemon
99 gm freshly ground almonds
26 gm sultanas
Pinch of black pepper
2 tablespoons plain yoghurt (optional)
Stir the flour, semolina, cornmeal, sugar, eggs and almonds together. The mixture will be severely crumbly. Now use your fingers and work in the butter and the fish. Don’t despair: after five minutes or so it will confound you by taking on the correct fatty consistency. Add the sultanas, pepper and grated lemon. Still on the stodgy side? The optional yoghurt will cure that. Go on working until the dough is uniform, with no individual flecks of mackerel. Your fingers may ache but you can console yourself with the thought that your nails will be all the cleaner (also one of the hidden benefits of making one’s own bread). Set the mixture aside to rest for an hour. Meanwhile pre-heat the oven to 190°C – what used to be Regulo 5 in the dear dead days of the Radiation Cookbook – and oil a baking tin. When the hour is up transfer the dough to the tin and bake for forty minutes, or forty-four minutes if you become distracted by a drunken slut in a neighbouring cottage.
To taste GS’s Fish Cake at its best it should be left to stand for twenty-four hours. This enhances both texture and flavour, though don’t ask me how. On the grounds that lilies are much improved by gilding, this cake benefits from an austere icing: 226 gm icing sugar mixed with 2 tablespoons Fernet Branca. This will top off your masterpiece with a toothsome cap of an interesting ginger shade.
For incurable R&D types, a word of warning. You would be amazed by how few varieties of fish are really suitable for this recipe. I have found by far the best to be ‘Pinocchio’ brand tinned sgombri al naturale, readily available in most Italian supermarkets. Raked salmon runs them a close second. In the past I have also tried eel, baked halibut and kippers. This last was not a success and I gave it to the birds. There was something a little too fantastic about fish bones in an iced cake, though it may be just that I’m getting old. Once upon a time my bird table in the Home Counties was an oasis of cuisine expérimentale in a desert of dull fare. Birds must surely be bored by an unrelieved diet of worms, bacon rind and burnt toast. My slow path to culinary mastery was marked by offerings that became the height of avian fashion – the dernier cri, one might say, which occasionally they proved to be. One of the victims, a green woodpecker, was in turn converted into a tasty mouthful by glazing and truffling.