One of the (many) things I wanted to do while travelling in Italy was to try Fernet-Branca – a dark, bitter, aromatic digestive (liqueur) that was first made in Milan in 1845.
I had the romantic idea that I would be in an atmospheric, candlelit restaurant having just finished one of the best meals I’d ever eaten. I’d order Fernet, which I’d be prepared to hate, but then – damn it – I would have to order sorbet or a decadent pastry with espresso to get the foul taste out of my mouth…
It didn’t quite work out like that.
So why the longwinded fantasy about a drink? I’d never actually heard of the stuff before a month or so ago, and then I researched an article on national drinks of South America and Fernet with coke popped up as Argentina’s unofficial national drink. But what really peaked my interest was it being described as tasting like ‘the liquor of hell itself’. I then saw that Bill Cosby mentions the questionable effects of drinking it in an eight-minute comedy sketch and one unknown source described drinking it as “like being punched in the nose while sucking on a mentholated cough drop.” Of course I had to try it.
While the recipe is a closely guarded secret, some of the 40 herbs, spices, resins and fungi include myrrh, chamomile, saffron, aloe, rhubarb and cardamom. It’s touted as a hangover cure and is supposedly great for helping pasta-fuelled indigestion. It has travelled, though not very far. It’s only really popular in Italy, Argentina and strangely enough San Francisco, where it’s either drunk as a shot chased down with a glass of ginger ale or in a new breed of cocktails being designed specially for it.
And where did I try this contentious liqueur? Well, while I had numerous amazing meals in numerous atmospheric restaurants, and spent many an evening sipping wine and chomping on an array of out-of-this-world antipasto in street bars, I’d inevitably end up in my B&B and cry, “(expletive)! I forgot the Fernet… again!”
So while travelling from Lecce to Rome on the morning train, my friend and I had a stop in Bari. With forty-five minutes to spare, we dashed across the road to a bar (come espresso shop, come patisserie, come cigarette shop) and without even removing our packs, my friend ordered a granita and I a shot of Fernet. With raised eyebrows from the two men wearing brown shirts and lurid orange ties and caps and a question of ‘are you sure?’ I was poured a shot of Fernet. I took a deep breath and prepared myself for the foulness that would surely ensue.
The verdict? Surprisingly delicious. It may be because of my years of experience supping herbal tinctures straight from the bottle but the bitterness wasn’t that bitter, there was a lovely menthol kick to it, it had an earthy warmth and overall I’d say I could drink Fernet any which way. Though the warm and tingly feeling it provided might have swayed my judgement a wee bit…