Forever Fernet

Fernet(Canscene) — I was surprised, just before Christmas to learn from a newspaper article that Fernet Branca, a bitter, aromatic Italian digestivo is the “in” drink in the U.S. especially in San Francisco where it’s frequently drunk with a cola chaser (ugggh!).

Said to include more than 40 secretly guarded herbs and spices (hang your head in shame Colonel!) Fernet Branca dates back to 1845 when it was created by Maria Scala, later to become Maria Branca through marriage thereby bringing a priceless dowry to her husband. While the recipe has remained a secret since that date, some of the known ingredients are myrrh, rhubarb, cardamom and saffron.

To describe straight Fernet Branca as an “acquired taste” is accurate but its value as a cure for hangovers, overeating and other related ills is legendary.

A personal nostrum

My own first encounter with Fernet Branca came at the age of 18 when, in Italy with my father, I sunbathed on the beach at the seaside resort of Scauri, fell asleep and lost my head covering. That evening, we travelled to Rome planing to spend the next day sightseeing before entraining for the return to England. The following morning, I could hardly stand with what must have been a sunstroke and was soon bedded down again in our hotel room. A doctor was called but failed to arrive; by this time I was surrounded by anxious friends and finally Ernesto Gallandt — related by marriage — who was in later years to become a firm friend and mentor, recommended a shot of Fernet Branca.

I downed the dark-coloured potion with great difficulty but resisted the urge to vomit, and slept again. When I awoke, it was too late to re-visit Saint Peter’s and the Colosseum but I was steady enough to take dinner with my father before catching the late train to Paris. My respect for Fernet Branca was won and some 70 yeas later remains for me, a panacea if not a cocktail ingredient.

I’ve just learned about a novel, Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Patterson published in England in 2004 and shortlisted that year for the Booker. It’s said to be a lively satire on the fad for settling in fashionable Tuscany.
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