NEW ORLEANS Food experience
The birthplace of the ‘Dixie’. In 1835 the Citizen’s State Bank on the corner of Royal and Iberville Streets in New Orleans began printing its own money including the ten-dollar bank note, with the French word for ten, Dix, printed on the note’s face. Americans, who frequented the bank but spoke little French, soon started to refer to this section of town as the ‘Land of the Dixies’, hence the word ‘Dixieland’, which later became a common phrase denoting the French Quarter. The Land of the Dixie is in fact 12 blocks long and six blocks wide, however Dixie eventually became synonymous with all of America’s southern states.
One of the best visual references for first time visitors to New Orleans is the sight of all the distinctive tombs in cemeteries as you drive in from the airport. It typifies the resilience of this below sea level destination that the best way to save their loved ones from literally floating away, was for their long lost descendants to create the world’s first above ground burial crypts.
Everyone has of course heard of Mardi Gras, the world’s biggest outdoor party, but New Orleans also boasts over 3,000 indoor bars, more per capita than any other city in the U.S.A.
“Nawoleans” as it’s often pronounced, is a city with a jambalaya pot full of southern roots having retained and maintained its cultural heritage, and distinct architecture in streets with streetcars and electric trams that bisect this city like a twisted and tangled net from a Bayou shrimp boat. Below the second-storey cast iron railings on Bourbon Street you can still listen to blues and jazz for free being played by street-corner musicians just across the way from some of America’s best award winning Creole restaurants.
Besides the Cajun/Creole food that includes a hotchpotch of African, Caribbean and French Huguenot spices aided with a good dollop of American culinary influences, this city is also famed for inventing the very first cocktail. Yes, New York did not invent the cocktail, as shocking as it sounds.
The tale of the cocktail? In 1838, apothecary Antoine Peychaud routinely conflated brandy, absinthe and bitters, which he always served to friends as an aperitif in an egg-shaped cup. In French, the cup was called a ‘coquetier’. Americans who couldn’t pronounce it properly called the cup a ‘cocktay’ and hence, the word ‘cocktail’ was born. Originally, the brandy used was Sazerac de Forges et fils, but most bartenders eventually switched to a higher-proof rye whisky by 1870.
Pernod also replaced absinthe when it was banned in 1911 (amazingly the ban wasn’t lifted until 2007).
Outside it was a hot and humid Louisiana day, so I did the right thing and found a seat in the stylish and iconic Teddy’s Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans to learn how a Sazarac cocktail is made, the world's first as we know it today. First, you’ll need a six-year old bottle of Kentucky Sazarac Straight Rye Whiskey, as well as a bottle of Peychaud’s Bitters, something made only in Louisiana. If you are about to drink one, sip it slowly – very slowly – as this is one serious heart starting or heart stopping cocktail:
Chill an old fashioned glass with ice (however, it’s always served without ice) In a second glass place one sugar cube and three dashes of bitters and blend • Add two ounces of a rye whiskey to the mix • Empty the ice filled glass and coat the inside with absinthe or Pernod • Discard the remaining absinthe • Strain the rye whiskey mix into the coated glass • Rim the glass with a lemon twist and drop into glass
From cocktails to crawfish pie! It was Hank Williams who wrote the song lyrics for, Jambalaya (On the Bayou), which included the well-known line, ‘Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and filé gumbo’. Jambalaya, crawfish and gumbo are probably the most staple of Louisiana home-cooked recipes, yet they are still served in many fancy New Orleans restaurants, often with some of the chef’s preferred ingredients to add flavour or to make it a point of difference, but they are also dishes easily cooked at home.
The wholly trinity of Cajun/ Creole cooking is a ‘sofrito-like’ mixture of bell peppers, celery and onions, exactly what you’ll need to start off a jambalaya recipe. This Spanish and French influenced dish will also traditionally include a smoked sausage, such as a chorizo with either chicken, pork, crayfish, shrimp or seafood added.
The difference between a jambalaya and a gumbo is that even though the gumbo uses similar ingredients and seasonings, gumbo includes both filé powder and okra, which are not used in jambalaya. Also quite often but not always, gumbo is served over separately cooked rice, whilst jambalaya has the rice cooked with the other ingredients in the same dish. The other primary difference is the presence of tomatoes in a jambalaya, which is completely absent in a gumbo.
In the United States, Louisiana supplies about 95% of all harvested crawfish, better known to us as freshwater crayfish, of which about 70% are consumed in the state. About 75% of crayfish produced in Louisiana are red swamp crawfish, and the remaining 25% are white river crawfish.
Crawfish pie is similar in appearance to a pot (meat) pie dish, but in essence it’s a baked savory pie using crawfish tail meat.
A visit to New Orleans should, without doubt, include drinking a Hurricane in the home of the Hurricane, Pat O’Brien’s on St. Peter’s Street. Built in 1817, you enter the building through a former carriageway where on the left you’ll find a regular but sometimes rowdy stand-up bar, and to the right you’ll find the duelling piano bar. Inside two pianists seated at two copperplated pianos famously whip the crowd into a fever with boisterous entertainment accompanied by patriotic southern songs. To the back of the building is a small and often crowded courtyard where well-dressed, gloved waiters serve drinks under shady trees as water fountains cascade into small troughs – all very romantic indeed.
Opened by Benson Harrison “Pat” O’Brien and his partner Charlie Cantrell in 1942, it’s said this bar has the highest volume of alcohol distribution per square foot in the world. Pat O’Brien had originally operated the Club Tipperary in the French Quarter during the 1920s Prohibition era, where entrance to his speakeasy was the password, “Storm’s Brewing”, hence the signature drink became known as the Hurricane. To try this at home fill a Hurricane shaped glass (or a similar glass holding 600 ml) with ice and add four and a half ounces of 151 proof Caribbean rum, then top it off with a mixture of fresh fruit juices and garnish with a cherry and orange slice – whatever ailment you may have – this will fix it!
As the sun sets on the Bayou backwaters there are five things you should always have on your list of what will make New Orleans a dream vacation choice: 1. Try at least one Hurricane but
beware of more than two! 2. Find time to taste a gumbo soup
or a seasoned dish of jambalaya 3. Take a paddle driven steamboat
ride on the Mississippi 4. Wander Bourbon Street alongside all the tourists with a cocktail or cold beer in your hand. 5. Try and pace yourself as you’re in
the party capital of the world.