A bite out of the Big Easy

Smother it in butter, fry it, sauce it ... welcome to a cuisine of excess. Christopher Hirst tucks in to Louisiana's mountainous hospitality
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The Independent Travel

'Never ruin good food with good manners," urged John Folse, a leading Louisiana food producer, as he laid the fourth course of my meal before me. The dessert was pain perdu (home-made bread fried in freshly churned butter) accompanied by a preserve made from wild swamp quince.

'Never ruin good food with good manners," urged John Folse, a leading Louisiana food producer, as he laid the fourth course of my meal before me. The dessert was pain perdu (home-made bread fried in freshly churned butter) accompanied by a preserve made from wild swamp quince.

My hesitation was not so much due to politeness as repletion. Having just ploughed through a generous entrée of local shrimp ("We always serve it with head on - it denotes freshness, and people like to suck the head") accompanied by caviar ("Yeah, we have our own small sturgeons in the bayou") and grits ("Stoneground yellow corn - think of it as polenta"), I was beginning to feel ever so slightly stuffed. Though I am not normally a shrinking violet at the table, I displayed an uncharacteristic restraint. After all, it was breakfast.

Southern Louisiana is notable for its music, its fondness for celebration and its disdain for conventional morality, but what really sets it apart is its devotion to good food. Even by American standards, locals tend to be on the large side, and they seem to be completely at ease with this fact.

Where else in America would your tour guide give you the grisly details about preparing turtle soup? "You grab the head with pliers, elongate the neck and chop it off. Then you pry open the shell to get at the meat. It's very good." Where else in the US would small towns hold "boucherie" festivals to celebrate pig killing with a feast of charcuterie? What other part of the world names its music after a foodstuff? Zydeco, the squeezebox-propelled beat of the bayou, takes its name from the slurred elision of the first two words of a song chorus: "Les haricots ne sont pas salés....", a reference to lean times when there was no salt meat to flavour the bean supper.

Though the French contributed beans and much more, another six traditions added to the stockpot of Louisiana cuisine: native Americans, Spanish, African-Americans, British, Italians and Germans. As in the spicy stew known as jambalay, which compounds jambon, the French word for ham, with aya, an African term for rice, ingredients from different cuisines were often stirred together.

Gumbo, an okra-based stew, is a corruption of guilloba, which means okra in the native language of the Congo. The southern tradition of deep-fried chicken also comes from Africa. The twin terms for Louisiana cuisine are Creole (which means a person of mixed African and European descent) and Cajun (which derives from the French-speaking Acadians, expelled by the British from Canada in the mid-18th century). In effect, they are synonymous. Both styles place heavy emphasis on spices and heavy sauces, though some locals insist that the Creole style uses more tomatoes.

The great treat of the bayou (a native American word for a slow-running river) is a crab boil. Large quantities of Atlantic blue crab, the small but feisty Callinectes sapidus ("tasty beautiful swimmer"), are briefly boiled in a pot of water flavoured with peppery seasoning. It doesn't sound much, but the crab boil I was invited to a couple of years ago on Avery Island, home of Tabasco sauce, was one of the best meals of my life.

Even if you don't get the chance to gorge on the incomparably sweet flesh of the blue crab, you won't starve in Cajun country. In an essay entitled "Missing Links", the New Yorker's food writer Calvin Trillin devoted several thousand words to the joys of boudin, (pronounced "boo-DAN") a sausage stuffed with rice, pork, liver and seasoning that bears scant relation to the French blood sausage of the same name.

Trillin maintains that "about 80 per cent" of this spicy, rural delicacy is consumed before the purchaser has left the parking lot. "In other words, Cajun boudin not only doesn't get outside the state, it usually doesn't even get home." Though I've tried boudin a few times - you can either squeeze the hot filling from the casing or eat it whole - I've never had any so transportingly excellent that I would specify it, as Trillin does, for a final meal prior to execution.

According to Trillin, Cajun boudin varies greatly from maker to maker. Among the vendors he mentions are Poche's Meat Market in Poche Bridge, Bubba Frey's in Mowata and Bruce's U-Need-A-Butcher in Lafayette. The vortex of New Orleans sucks in this rich culinary heritage.

Squeezed into a bend of the Mississippi, this city of around a million people is easy to tour by foot or the newly expanded streetcar network. The handsomely preserved French Quarter, a balconied matrix of tourist haunts and residential housing slightly bigger than London's Soho, is an enjoyable and safe place to stroll (but skip Bourbon Street with its seamy mixture of sex, booze and over-amplified music).

Best of all, the Quarter is packed with fine eateries. On Royal Street, the cavernous Court of Two Sisters is a bustling tourist magnet with the largest outdoor dining patio in the French Quarter. In keeping with the region's fondness for unfeasibly vast breakfasts, the restaurant's main draw is "Daily Jazz Brunch". From 9am to 3.30pm every day, peckish hordes browse from a buffet of 80 or so dishes, ranging from eggs Benedict to a great mound of freshly boiled crayfish.

One oddity is kingcake, a (very) distant relative of galette de roi, the confection consumed by the French on Twelfth Night. In the New Orleans version, the French original, a delicious cake of millefeuille pastry with an almond paste filling, has transmuted into a vast sponge cake topped with psychedelic swirls of lurid icing.

Another regional speciality called hogshead cheese, a sort of gristly brawn, is rather closer to the French fromage de tête. Most visitors plump for the less challenging shrimp étouffée - "smothered" in a thick, roux-based sauce.

Further along Royal Street, Brennan's restaurant offers another breakfast of staggering dimensions. You will be invited to start with a kir royale, which isn't a bad idea in this liquor-loving town. The best thing on the menu is turtle soup, thick with soft, succulent flesh and laced with fino sherry. Thankfully, you are spared any details about how the creature is dispatched. Turtles are plentiful in the Mississippi Delta; Brennan's get theirs from a turtle farm.

Brennan's speciality is a flamboyant dish called bananas Foster. The fruit is fried in butter on a spirit stove by a waiter, who also gives a running commentary. "A few bananas for the potassium. A little sugar for the energy. A spot of rum to add excitement ..." As the fumes from the last ingredient hit the fire, a spout of flame almost licks the dining room ceiling. Consumed with ice cream, this must be one of the most calorific treats in a city devoted to excess.

Each year, Brennan's gets through 35,000lb of bananas in the preparation of this high calorie belt-strainer. Sometimes, it seems that every corner of the Quarter boasts some record or culinary distinction. Pat O'Brien's, a vast, tourist-packed honky-tonk, is reputed to sell more alcohol than any other bar on earth. K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen is the base of Paul Prudhomme, the bearded proselytiser for "blackened" cooking whose Cajun spices are on sale throughout the world.

Antoine's, founded in 1840, is the oldest restaurant in the city. Abraham Lincoln and virtually every successive American president have eaten in this rather starchy establishment, which consists of a dozen chilly dining rooms.

The restaurant is famous for a dish called oysters Rockefeller, whose recipe it vigilantly guards (the bivalves are grilled on the half-shell after being swaddled in a mixture of butter, fresh herbs and the local anise liqueur Herbsaint).

Personally, I'd sooner take my oysters au naturel, while seated at the bar of the Acme Oyster House. Located in a decaying, balconied building on Iberville Street, the Acme is a rackety temple to the bivalve. Its decoration - an eye-bludgeoning agglomeration of Mardi Gras necklaces, neon signs and TV screens - has steadily accreted since the Acme was founded in 1910.

Behind the antique marble bar, a row of shuckers ply their ancient craft, opening nearly two million molluscs a year. After loosening the oyster's tenacious grip on its shell, they slide the half-shells like poker chips across the marble bar to eager consumers. These fleshy, warm-water oysters may lack the saline savouriness of their European relatives, but, when accompanied by a good spat of Tabasco, they slip down very easily.

Within a few steps of the French Quarter, you can eat at such sprauntzy joints as August, at 301 Tchoupitoulas Street. In this converted tobacco warehouse, Cajun cuisine takes the elegant form of pork belly and lobster choucroûte or pot au feu of bobtail quail stuffed with oxtail and porcini.

At 401 Poydras Street, Mother's Restaurant, which modestly claims to serve "world's best baked ham", excels in the regional speciality of po'boy sandwiches (a small, soft baguette). The best-known of these is the fried oyster po'boy, also known as the "peacemaker", since this calorific bomb was allegedly brought home as a peace-offering by erring husbands after a night on the tiles. Mother's signature po'boy is the "Famous Ferdi", stuffed with ham, beef and "débris" (meat trimmings).

"Come as you are, leave different," declares the Louisiana Office of Tourism. Well, you'll certainly leave larger.


How to get there

Christopher Hirst was a guest of the Louisiana Office of Tourism, Delta Airlines and Fairmont Hotels. Return flights from London Gatwick to New Orleans, via Atlanta with Delta (0800 414 767; www.delta.com) are from £400.

Where to stay

Fairmont Hotel New Orleans, 123 Baronne Street (020-7025 1625; www.fairmont.com) has room only from $228 (£135) per night based on two sharing.

Where to eat

Court of Two Sisters, 613 Royal Street (001 504 522 7261): jazz brunch, $25 (£15); dinner, $39. Brennan's, 417 Royal Street (001 504 525 9711): three-course breakfast, $39. Restaurant Antoine, 713-717 Rue Saint Louis (001 504 581 4422): main course, $35 to $50. Acme Oyster House, 724 Iberville Street (001 504 522 5973); a dozen oysters, $6.49. August (001 504 299 9777): main course, around $30. Mother's, 401 Poydras Street (001 504 523 9656): Famous Ferdi po'boy, $8; oyster po'boy, $12.

More information

Louisiana Office of Tourism & New Orleans Convention and Visitor's Bureau (01462 458696).