If, like me, you have a penchant for a noir crime novel and are partial to the food and wine of Provence you should make a bee-line for Jean-Claude Izzo's peerless 'Marseilles Trilogy', published (in style and in English) by Europa Editions and excellently translated by Howard Curtis. The dark underbelly of Marseilles is exposed therein with insight and affection and it is littered with references to the local wine and cuisine. Izzo was born in Marseilles, to Italian immigrant parents, in 1945 and the soul of the city is infused in his writing. He died in 2000 aged 55 having achieved fame in the 1990s with the publication of 3 novels featuring retired cop Fabio Montale. Collectively known as the 'Marseilles Trilogy' the books draw heavily on Izzo's upbringing in Marseilles, national service in Djibouti (where he worked as a photographer and journalist for a military newspaper) and early career in the book trade.
Food and drink were clearly important to Izzo as he draws the reader into details few novelists would consider. How to make the perfect pistou soup, bouillabaisse and aïoli are debated at length and the numerous references to wine are precise and clearly based on a deep personal knowledge - "I put down two litres of red wine from the estate of Villeneuve Flayosc, in Rouquefort-la-Bédoule. A wine a Breton friend named Michel had introduced to us the previous winter. Château-les-Mûres. Really delicious." Pleasingly, on page 102 of the final book 'Solea' our Vieux Marc Égrappé gets a mention: "Fonfon had brought along a bottle of Bunan. An old stemmed marc from La Cadière, near Bandol. "Taste this," he said. "It'll make a change from that Scotch of yours." It was delicious. Quite different from my Lagavulin with its slightly peaty taste. The Bunan was dry, but extremely fruity, smelling of scrubland. By the time I'd won two games of rummy and lost eight, I'd already enjoyed four little glasses of it."Izzo's other great passion was music and his catholic tastes encompassed everything from jazz to rap, reggae and Neapolitan folk. Again the referencing is incredibly detailed but it's the food and wine descriptions that really stay with you: "Her bouillabaisse was one of the best in Marseilles. Scorpion fish, gurnard, conger, dory, angler fish, weever, pandora, rainbow wrasse...A few crabs, too, and sometimes a lobster. Only rock fish. That's what made it different. And for the sauce, she had a particular genius for combining garlic and peppers with potatoes and sea urchin. But her bouillabaisse was never on the menu. You had to phone regularly to know when she was making it."
If that doesn't stimulate your appetite for a Provençal feast then you are probably best off sticking to the latest Dan Brown but if you really want to transport yourself to the bars and terraces of the Vieux Port and the Panier then Izzo is in a class of his own.
"What makes [Izzo's] work haunting is his extraordinary ability to convey the tastes and smells of Marseilles, and the way the memory and obligation haunt every step his hero takes."
The New Yorker