Cajun Country: Crawfish, Cuisine and... Clarkson?

Zydeco tunes, edible alligators and breakfast parties: the bayou is full of surprises, says Simon Calder

Breakfast is more than just the best meal of the day: it proved the saviour of Breaux Bridge, a pretty Louisiana town whose first half rhymes with "crow" and whose population was in danger of declining to less than its meagre altitude.

"It happened by accident," says – or rather shouts – Dickie Breaux, the owner of the Café Des Amis. Even though it's not quite nine on a Saturday morning, the party at his restaurant is in full swing. A zydeco band in the corner belt out the four-step favourites. Waitresses sashay between the revellers whirling on the dance floor to deliver coffee and beignets – doughnuts that have enjoyed a blizzard, rather than drizzle, of icing sugar, and which deliver an instant energy kick.

"The local council had some dignitaries over from France in town," explains Mr Breaux. "They wanted to show them some typical culture from Cajun country, but their schedule was tight. So we put on a zydeco breakfast. Word got around, and it stuck."

That is how I came to set off at seven through the haze of a Louisiana morning, to walk from my B&B beside the bayou to the Café Des Amis. Previously I had misconstrued the word "bayou" – I thought it was a termgeneric for the low-lying swamp that oozes into the Gulf of Mexico south of Interstate 10, the freeway that underlines mainstream America. But it turns out to mean a slow-moving river. In this part of the world, all such waterways drain ultimately into the mighty Mississippi – though not before casting a gentle morning mist on their surroundings.

I arrived near the front of the queue for the usual Saturday zydeco breakfast at the Café Des Amis. That meant I was guaranteed a seat for the liveliest – and possibly tastiest – breakfast in the Deep South. (A polite notice asks customers to relinquish their place once they have feasted, so that those waiting in the street outside can enjoy the experience.)

A waitress called Desiree has a question for me when she discovers I am British: "Do you know Jeremy Clarkson?"

The Top Gear team had steamrollered through Louisiana, sending up the supposed redneck culture. The breakfast crowd – black and white, tourist and local, same-sex and mixed couples – refuted any such preconceptions.

Dickie disappears to chat with the prospective customers who are peering in the big picture windows of the café; the last table had filled at just 7.45am. Along the street, antique shops are opening up for the weekend influx of city dwellers escaping the heat of New Orleans and the state capital, Baton Rouge. Many of them will end up at the Café Des Amis, which Dickie and his wife, Cynthia, bought in 1991. Its previous role was as the premises of a coffin manufacturer whose business was in terminal decline. They dressed the premises with sculptures that dangle from the high ceiling – a steel catfish here, an old pirogue (dug-out canoe) there – and the occasional wonky fleur-de-lys to remind everyone of their roots.

The Cajuns were relative latecomers to Louisiana. The first Europeans to settle in the territory in any number were the 18th-century Creoles, a kind of French colonial aristocracy laced with African and Spanish influences.

The fancy plantation houses along the Mississippi are Creole creations. The Cajuns were regarded as culturally inferior when they settled in the late 18th century. Until 1755 they had been a French-speaking community peaceably farming land in Acadia, now part of the Canadian province of New Brunswick.

After the British defeated the French for control of Canada, they were deported in what is known as "Le Grand Dérangement". Many Acadians – or Cajuns, once their name had been corrupted – ended up in Louisiana, where at least they shared a language with the incumbents. They started to transform marshland into farmland. A glance at the local phone book shows they laid down deep roots: a dozen Bienvenues are listed, along with a scattering of Toussaints and, by way of melodic conclusion, "Zeringue, Tiffany".

Music has long thrived. Terry and the Zydeco Bad Boys are in full swing. The percussionist is wearing a vest frottoir, a full metal jacket looking like a giant cheese grater, which is actually a washboard, and characterises the hybrid genre of zydeco. In contrast, pure Cajun music features a fiddle and is strictly two-step, but is equally as vibrant.

Along with distinctive music, the Cajuns created their own style of cuisine. "We fry, we bake, we roast, we smother" says Dickie's son, Brett, who has slid temporarily into his father's place.

Brett is the chef, and therefore the man you need to explain Cajun cuisine. "Breaux Bridge is the crawfish capital of the world," he says (the British would call these freshwater crustaceans crayfish). "The fat inside the head is what makes crawfish flavourful."

Chomp. Brett says he would not tell me the ingredients he had prepared beneath the thick, dark roux that is used to smother anything from chicken to corn (etouffée is the Cajun term). It tastes, well, a bit like a chicken that has been eating plenty of crawfish.

"Alligator," he reveals.

Chomp. The first live alligator I encounter, later that morning doesn't actually snap his elongated jaws closed like that, sadly – he is too busy lazing on a huge log amid an intensely primeval landscape. My second Louisiana purchase after breakfast is a two-hour tour on nearby Lake Martin. The small boat, captained by the guide with the best name in Louisiana, Walter "Butch" Guchereau, glides through the swampland that had confronted the Cajun settlers.

Trees draped in Spanish moss (a plant that looks like an unravelled ball of wool) crowds over the water and confers a deep green on everything – including the armour-plated reptile enjoying the odd ray of sunshine that slips through the arboreal canopy. Walter explains that Lake Martin was once part of the main channel of the Mississippi. "Every few thousand years it changes course," he says. For a backwater, there's a lot going on. The trunks of bald cypresses (the surprisingly hirsute state tree) bulge, dragonflies dart, lily pads ripple as we drift past.

Walter points out a blue heron and a great egret on fishing expeditions, plus several more large, lethargic reptiles. He explains why alligators are content to laze on logs. "They only have a brain the size of a peanut. They don't get bored, they don't need cable TV or nothing." Even Top Gear.

Back in Breaux Bridge, the Deep South heat smothers itself over the early afternoon and sends sensible tourists indoors. The Isabelle Inn B&B, whose back garden runs down to the bayou, makes an ideal retreat. The host, Susan Sabatier, is as welcoming and relaxed as her handsome, airy home. "We are proud of our bayous and swamps and alligators in Cajun Country," she says. "Everyone who leaves wants to come home."

At the Café Des Amis, Brett Breaux has a moment to chomp on a corner of brioche and reflect on the resurgence of Breaux Bridge. "This is an extremely vibrant town, now."

Travel Essentials

Getting there

  • Fly from Heathrow to the main Cajun airport, Lafayette, via Houston on United, via Dallas on American or via Atlanta on Delta. Houston is a three-hour drive from Lafayette.

Eating there

  • Cafe Des Amis: 001 337 332 5273;
  • Zydeco breakfast: Saturday at 8.30am.

Seeing there

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