Say hello to Fernet Branca, one of Italy’s most famous amari. Made by the Fratelli Branca Distillerie, the alluringly herbaceous liquor with its distinctly bitter taste and spicy finish was invented in 1845.
There are other brands of Fernet, but Fernet Branca is the big daddy of them all, and the formula of herbs and spices such as saffron, myrrh, linden, camomile, cinnamon, bitter orange, and gentian remains a closely held industrial secret.
Long respected as a digestivo, a bit of Fernet will right you if you’ve overdone it at the table, opening your stomach and promoting digestion. It has been touted as a cure for numerous maladies, and remarkably, during American Prohibition, Fernet was imported and sold in the United States for “medicinal purposes only.”
Consumed neat, Fernet dwells in the province of the hard core lovers of the beverage. For a softer touch, try it in cocktails or over ice with seltzer or mineral water. One of the most famous Fernet cocktails goes by the charming name of the “Hanky Panky.”
This remarkable mix of equal parts gin and Italian vermouth plus a mere two dashes of Fernet Branca is my favorite cocktail of all. There are plenty of other ways to enjoy this bracingly complex amaro, the Toronto and the Fanciulli among them, but one of the most intriguing drinks must surely be simple Fernet and Coke, or Fernet con Cola as it is known in Buenos Aires, where, by the way, more Fernet is consumed than anywhere in the world outside of Italy. The mix of sweet Coca-Cola and bitter Fernet keeps the Buenos Aires club set on the go until the wee hours of the morning.
There’s no doubt about it. Drinkers grow into Fernet, but for a quick conversion try it in a smooth gelato studded with tiny bits of chocolate. Gelato is a creamy, intensely flavored frozen dessert, Italy’s answer to America’s airy ice cream. Churned just until thick, with bold hues and bright flavors, gelato’s characteristic creamy texture belies the lightness of its ingredients. Here I started with a custard base infused with Chocolate Mint – a particularly mild mint variety with a chocolate scent. Next I boiled the Fernet to concentrate its flavor, a process that brought forward notes of cola, root beer and chocolate.
The custard base transformed the liquor, softening and burnishing the taste. Think of it as Fernet Branca dressed in a velvet coat, all soft edges and smooth flavors. So go ahead. Be adventurous and try Fernet. It is available at liquor stores every where.
The Hanky Panky
•1 ½ oz. Hendrick’s gin
•1 ½ oz. Italian Vermouth
•2 dashes Fernet Branca
• A twist of orange peel
• Fill a cocktail shaker half full with ice. Add liquors, stir thirty seconds, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist orange peel over glass, and garnish with a fresh twist.
Gelato al Fernet Branca
makes about 1 ¼ quarts
•1½ cups whole milk
•1 ½ cups heavy cream
•¾ cup granulated sugar, divided
•5 large egg yolks
•3 tablespoons chocolate mint leaves, chopped
•¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
•½ cup Fernet Branca
•½ cup mini-chocolate chips
Combine milk, cream, ¼ cup granulated sugar and chocolate mint leaves in a medium saucepan. Place over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tiny bubbles form around the edges of the pan. Remove from heat, cover and steep twenty minutes. In a separate saucepan, boil Fernet over medium heat until reduced by half. Transfer to a glass measuring cup and set aside. Whisk egg yolks and ½ cup sugar in a medium bowl until light in color.
After milk mixture has steeped twenty minutes, skim off and discard the mint leaves. Reheat milk briefly and slowly pour half of the hot milk mixture into the eggs, whisking constantly. Return the egg and milk mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until mixture reaches 160 degrees F. or coats the back of a spoon.
Prepare a large bowl half full of ice water. Strain the hot mixture into another slightly smaller bowl. Add reduced Fernet and vanilla, stirring to combine. Place bowl over ice bath and cool, stirring occasionally. Cover mixture and refrigerate to cool completely, four hours or overnight.
Transfer to an ice cream or gelato maker and churn according to manufacturer’s instructions. Just before gelato is ready, add mini-chocolate chips. Freeze several hours or overnight to cure.
Fernet Gelato and Coca-Cola Float
Think outside the box and enjoy a grown-up fountain treat.
1 bottle Coca-Cola
3 scoops Gelato al Fernet
Place 1 or 2 scoops of gelato in soda glass. Add Coca-Cola, leaving about 1inch at top of glass. Carefully place the last scoop atop the Coca-Cola. Serve with a straw, soda spoon, and extra Coca-Cola on the side
Food safety: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends cooking egg yolks to 160 degrees F. to kill any Salmonella bacteria that may be present. Consumption of raw or undercooked eggs should be avoided, especially by young children, elderly persons and persons with weakened immune systems or debilitating illness.