Whenever I'm researching a Spanish wine--or any beverage from Spain that contains alcohol--I go first to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's Beber o no beber (To Drink or Not to Drink)--one of the best books I know of on the subject. Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's work is especially useful when I want to know about old fashioned (and often long-out-of-fashion) Spanish wines such as rancios or the beautiful sherry-like wines of Montilla-Moriles. International wine writers such as Oz Clark may touch on these wines, but they never write about them with the depth that Manuel Vázquez Montalbán does.
Manuel Vázquez Montalbán is also famous for his writing about food--especially Spanish food. But I suppose he is best known for writing the Pepe Carvalho series of Spanish detective novels, which are famous for weaving together the themes of Spanish wine, food, and murder.
I had never read a Pepe Carvalho mystery, so when I was offered a review copy of the new translation of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's "Southern Seas," I jumped at the chance.
The parts about Spanish food and wine are fascinating. Vázquez Montalbán's detective Pepe Carvalho has fried eggs and chorizo first thing in the morning (a bit heavy, to say the least, for Spanish breakfast, but Pepe is a tough guy). One murder suspect carries on at length about morteruelo, a pate from Cuenca, and all but gives the recipe (it contains caraway seeds). We get to see Carvalho whip up a dish of garlic, prawns and eggplant in bechamel sauce (he fries the prawn heads in the oil first, for added flavor), and his assistant prepares potatoes and chorizo a la riojana for his lunch (the potatoes should crumble a bit, but never dissolve). All the while Pepe drinks a lot of jumilla. Like I said, he's tough.
And the story? Well. . . I have to admit I was disappointed. Instead of creating unique characters or even depicting Spanish "types," Manuel Vázquez Montalbán focuses on the shallow, pretentious people you can find anywhere (the very sort of people I'm hoping to escape when I pick up a detective novel). Though the setting is Barcelona in the late seventies--which in itself made me want to read the book--very little of it is described except for a depressing suburb of the sort that could be found on the outskirts of any European city. The detective Pepe Carvalho is full of false cynicism and world weariness, and the female characters tend to throw themselves at him in the this-is-obviously-a-male-fantasy way. In short, it is a generic detective novel, albeit with an intellectual veneer. I wish Manuel Vázquez Montalbán could have written his story with more of the love of particulars that he nearly always shows when writing about Spanish food and wine.
But it's worth wading through "Southern Seas" just for the scenes when he focuses on Spanish food and wine. At one point several otherwise unmemorable characters argue over the correct way to make a true Valencian paella. The verdict is that it should never contain onions because they make the rice wet and sticky. I was shocked. I ALWAYS put onions in my paella. The next day I made a paella, left out the onion, and discovered the rice actually is lighter and fluffier without the onion. Quite a discovery.
That said, I came away from "Southern Seas" wanting to read more of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's books about food and wine--not more Pepe Carvalho.