All hail Fernet-Branca, the foulest liqueur on Earth
Just recently, Fernet-Branca reappeared in town, right there on the BC Liquor Store shelves. Or maybe shelf, singular. It did show up in the liqueur section of the Product Guide, subcategory Herbal, $26.99 for a 500-millilitre bottle. (I promised the guy at my neighbourhood store that I'd put that in if he actually brought a few bottles in and stood them up there with the Jí¤germeister and that lot.)
So what is Fernet-Branca? About the foulest-tasting alcohol ever devised by the devious mind of man. I can't imagine living without it.
It's one of a sizable group of concoctions out of Italy called amaro, or bitters. Now, there are two kinds of bitters: aromatic and stomach bitters. FB is in the latter category, and that's why the life of a foodie frequently revolves around its judicious ingestion.
It is far and away the most amazing ameliorative I know for serious dinner-table indulgence. In the tradition of the French trou Normand, it's the after-indulgence shot that blazes–hell, pile-drives–a trail through all that confit, chí¨vre, and cream, not only soothing and smoothing the stomach, but actually making room for more.
No other bitter even approaches its efficacy, and I've tried them all: Underberg, Unicum, Nordsí¸, Stonsdorfer–it's a long list. Every European country seems to produce at least a couple, but none do the job like this one.
Some people set it alongside the aforementioned Jí¤germeister. It may have had a similar genesis, but there's no comparison in flavour. FB makes the college-popular J taste like cotton candy.
The original Fernet-Branca began in Milan, where it is still produced today. There is also an Argentine offshoot, made in Buenos Aires, which will do in a pinch. (They claim some adherence to the original recipe, but the cognoscenti know there's a difference in flavour.) There, they like to drink it with Coke. The mind shudders.
Fernet-Branca is the very definition of the word bitters as it applies to these substances. It is astonishingly bitter. Its taste comes from 40 or 50 different herbs and spices–among them such taste treats as rhubarb, saffron, camomile, gentian, galangal, and who knows what else. Someone knows, back at FB HQ, but they aren't telling. There's also a mint-flavoured version–double mental shudder–called Branca Menta.
The original was first made as a medicine in the mid 1800s. The Branca brothers' company remains a family concern, and while there are people who insist on mixing FB with other alcohol for their pleasure, to me it remains a medicine, and one of the best in the arsenal.
It is the colour of road tar, smells like hell, tastes worse, and has to be shot straight back, with no hesitation. Maybe even have a second if the gastric distress is greater than usual. Ten minutes later, you're right as rain and ready to face another mess of pottage.
I can't travel very far without it, especially not to the land of wine tastings, food judging, dubious street-stall cuisine, and the like. This is getting tougher, of course, with the carryon restrictions at airports, but most civilized European grocery stores carry the little pocket flasks.
FB's return to B.C. is especially good news for my Ontario friends, who would solicitously ask if they could "bring anything" when they came to town. "Bottle of Fernet-Branca," I would say, and off they'd go to Vintages in Toronto, where it has been sold all these decades, even after it departed the Italian-deli shelves of Commercial Drive.
For many more years than I can recall, that's where you bought it. Seven bucks for a litre bottle, up there with the panettone and the giant Easter eggs. Then someone reads the label, and the liquor police made the delis discontinue selling it because it contains 40 percent alcohol. You have to know that no one in his or her right mind would drink it for the 40 percent–it's simply too ghastly.
My introduction to Fernet-Branca came decades ago in a smart bar in Barcelona. I was about 19, and had heard of the stuff but never tasted it. Sitting at the bar waiting for my date, I spotted the now-familiar label on a bottle behind the sherries. "Fernet-Branca," I said to the bartender, mispronouncing it as "fair-nay". Nevertheless, he nodded, pulled the bottle, and poured a shot.
I took a sip. Something shattering happened to my personal interior, something Immanuel Velikovsky would have understood. Still, there was nothing for it but to continue, there being no nearby aspidistra I could empty the glass into. By the time my dinner guest appeared, I was in the sort of gastric distress I've since learned the stuff cures.
It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship. No, I don't recall the name of the lady, but I've never forgotten the name of the bitters.
Rome File, an on-line guide to Rome, refers to it as "a household name in Italy and a cult hit abroad”¦one of Italy's more unusual drinks", going on to say it's best described as "a cross between medicine, crushed plants and bitter mud". Sounds inviting, doesn't it?
Well, that's medicine for you: it tastes so bad it has to be good, to paraphrase the little Buckley's man on TV. It is also said to be good for menstrual discomfort, hangovers, and baby colic–poor baby!–and, according to an old Italian newspaper advertisement (also via Rome File), is "febrifuge, vermifuge, tonic, invigorating, warming and anti-choleric". FB became a considerable hit during the American Prohibition because, as a medicine, it was still legal to sell and consume it.
There's a very funny book by James Hamilton-Paterson called Cooking With Fernet-Branca, which, miraculously, got itself nominated for the Booker Prize. It talks about the stuff at great and amusing length, and includes some of the most awful recipes you'll ever see.
Speaking of recipes, I know some of you will want to experiment with mixing it; it doesn't help. But here goes: a Bonsoni is three parts sweet vermouth, one part FB, a dash of sugar syrup, and a couple of dashes of Pernod, all combined with ice. Good luck.
A Bourbon Branca is simplicity itself: two measures bourbon, a teaspoon of FB in an old-fashioned glass, on the rocks. A Dobbs consists of white crí¨me de menthe poured into a glass full of crushed ice, with a couple of dashes of FB on top. Le Coq Hardy twists the old Champagne Cocktail so: put a sugar cube in the bottom of a wide champagne glass, and top it with drops of Grand Marnier, cognac, FB, and Angostura bitters. Fill the glass with Champagne, stir till the sugar cube dissolves, and decorate with an orange slice and a cherry. Think hard about drinking it.
Finally, a Yodel wants two parts of Fernet-Branca with two parts of orange juice. Then add lots of ice, and fill the glass with soda. I'll be in the car, okay?