Down the hatch

September 9, 2009

Fratelli Branca, Milan

Fratelli Branca, Milan

Something I just read reminded me of the only remedy my paternal grandmother swore by: Fernet-Branca. If you’ve never tasted it, you don’t know what you’re missing — and I say that without prejudice one way or the other.

Fernet is a liquer concocted of a couple of dozen herbs and spices and heavily laced with alcohol. There is more than one brand, but Fernet Branca — distilled by the Fratelli Branca in Milan — is the only one most people know.

Well, actually, I’m not sure most people know about Fernet at all, but to the extent that some people do, most of them know Fernet-Branca. I haven’t had Fernet in many years, but even when my memory of it was fresher I’m not sure I could have described the taste. The website calls it “a cross between medicine, crushed plants and bitter mud,” but I don’t think that does it justice.

Fratelli Branca, Milan

Fratelli Branca, Milan

As I implied, I was introduced to Fernet-Branca by Teresina Giordano Paolino, my grandmother, who kept it on hand to cure ailments of the stomach. When I was a kid, the combination of free range in our grocery store and my grandmother’s determination to kill me with food resulted in frequent attacks such as George Ade used to call “the stomach-ache.” If she got wind of such a calamity, Grandma would summon me to her kitchen — we had two, like all good Italians — and force me to swallow a shot glass full of Fernet-Branca. I say “force me.” That was only at first. After a while, I developed a taste for it — my first “acquired taste,” I suppose. It hits the belly like a shotgun blast — garlic, aloe, gentian root, rhubarb, gum myrrh, red cinchona bark, galanga, zedoary, and heaven knows what else simultaneously colliding with gastric acid. And the alcohol — oh, my. Depending on where one buys it, the alcohol content of Fernet-Branca can exceed 40 percent. It should come as no surprise that the firewater works — every time.

Fratelli Branca, Milan

Fratelli Branca, Milan

When Pat and I were on our honeymoon in Bermuda, my stomach started barking after a few days of high living. I was complaining to Cappy, the hotel bartender, when I spied a Fernet-Branca label among the bottles behind him. It was like spotting an old friend in a crowd. I got Cappy to pour me a shot, although he was convinced it would make me sicker, but nothing doing — I was ready to resume the feast in about five minutes.

From what I’ve read on the Internet, Fernet-Branca, which has been around since 1845, is very trendy these days, particularly in Argentina, where many folks like it mixed with cola. In fact, it’s the subject of a song, “Fernet Cola,” by the rock group Vilma Palma.

There’s a Chicago Tribune story about the Argentine connection at this link:


One Response to “Down the hatch”


    Very Very Funny. Slapstick Comedy.

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