In case you missed it, there was a great article about exploring Louisiana culture and cuisine by Alex Palmer in the New York Daily News this past Sunday.
To really appreciate Louisiana’s amazing food, take in the state’s striking landscapes — and vice versa.
Viewing the sugar-cane fields or Gulf of Mexico shores helps you fully enjoy the food produced in the area, while shelling a crawfish or eating boudin will deepen your appreciation of the terrain from which it came.
During a weeklong road trip across the state’s southern coast, I immersed myself in Louisiana’s vistas and food, and the work many in the state are doing to sustain them both.
A Southern Louisiana road trip can go west to east — flying into Houston and out of New Orleans — but I opted for the more scenic route, looping through the state from New Orleans to Lake Charles, and back. This meant a little extra driving, but if you’re a fan of open water, cypress trees and the spookily stunning backdrops of HBO’s “True Detective,” you’ll savor the extra hours on the road.
In Louisiana, food is like fingerprints: No two gumbos, bread puddings, or étouffées (a thick stew usually served with shellfish over rice) are alike. It’s this diversity that led the city of Lake Charles to formalize its Southwest Louisiana Boudin Trail (visitlakecharles.org/boudintrail).
Boudin (pronounced “boo-dan”) is the Cajun cousin of sausage links, made by blending pork, liver, rice, onions and seasonings, then stuffing them into a casing.
I got my first taste of the finger food at B&O Kitchen and Grocery, a meat market owned by the third generation of the Benoit family, which sells at least 150 to 200 pounds of boudin daily. While B&O’s smoked links were my favorite, visitors can sample around at any of the 27 stops on the Boudin Trail, which include restaurants, markets, and even a gas station, scattered along Interstate 10 and Highway 90.
For a full Cajun dinner in Lake Charles, schedule a trip to the Seafood Palace. Blue crabs fished from the Gulf, and crawfish farmed nearby are prepared by the half dozen and the pound, respectively, then boiled and piled high on trays the size of manhole covers. But be warned: Your fingers will sting after all that shell cracking.
The area also boasts the Creole Nature Trail through the parishes of Calcasieu and Cameron, which share a border with Texas. The drive takes you through more than 180 miles of Louisiana’s Outback — bayous, prairies and walking paths such as the beautiful Pintail Wildlife Boardwalk — and along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. While the state’s beaches are not the white sandy variety, they’re great for shelling and birding.
Here, Grosse Savanne Eco-Tours (grossesavanne-ecotours.com) are worth a couple of hours. The outings were introduced last year by the Sweet Lake Land and Oil Company, as part of its efforts to restore and preserve some of its 50,000 acres of land. Visitors can join a guided boat tour through 500 acres of restored marsh, spotting alligators and vegetation on the way to an astounding bird rookery, where herons, ibises, and flamingo-pink roseate spoonbills have built their nests.
Grosse Savanne is just one of many eco-tourism outfits in the state. Speaking to Louisianans, one senses a renewed urgency around protecting and restoring the state’s natural resources. The trauma of the natural disasters of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Isaac, and the manmade 2010 BP oil spill has heightened awareness that while utilizing the land is vital to the agriculture and oil industries (and the many locals they employ), the land must be actively conserved if Louisiana’s food, lifestyle and culture are to continue thriving.
Efforts towards this goal can be seen an hour-and-a-half drive southeast from Lake Charles, in the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area. Though much of this 70,000-acre preserve along the western border of Vermilion parish requires special access, a newly opened birding and nature trail gives visitors a leisurely walk with likely sightings of gators or migratory fowl. You may even see a whooping crane — an endangered bird that had vanished from Louisiana decades ago and was reintroduced beginning in 2011.
For a more all-access experience, head to the Palmetto Island State Park, which opened in 2010 and offers fishing, boating and camping (whether in a tent, RV or one of the park’s comfy vacation cabins) along the Vermilion River.
In Louisiana, food is like fingerprints: No two gumbos, bread puddings, or étouffées (a thick stew usually served with shellfish over rice) are alike.
While in the area, have lunch at Suire’s Grocery and Restaurant. The roadside stop, with an ice machine out front and hand-painted menu on the wall, doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside you’ll find a family-run operation famous for its turtle sauce picante (a mix of Cajun spices, onion, garlic and turtle meat over rice), and delicious shrimp or crab pistolettes (sort of a doughnut stuffed with seafood). If you prefer something a bit more upscale, but still wallet-friendly, Shucks! The Louisiana Seafood House (shucksrestaurant.com) offers delicious seafood, and as the name implies, its local oysters — raw or charbroiled — are a highlight.
The importance of farming and fishing to this state is made clear beyond the menus of locally sourced food. East of Vermilion, in Iberia parish, sits Avery Island, home of the famous Tabasco factory since 1868. Every drop of the pepper sauce is distilled here in whisky barrels for three years, blended, bottled and shipped all over the world. The factory produces about 750,000 bottles a day, thanks to a consistent product rooted in the Louisiana soil. You can stop in for a factory tour for the bargain price of $1, or just pick up limited-edition sauces and souvenirs in the Tabasco Country Store.
Just outside of Avery Island sits another landmark to Louisiana’s food production: the Conrad Rice Mill, the oldest operating rice mill in the country, which celebrated its centennial two years ago. This factory provides a lesson in how this food staple has shaped local cuisine since the arrival of the Acadians (French speakers exiled from what’s now Nova Scotia, who became today’s Cajuns). While the mill continues to produce rice on the belt-drive power transmission system that’s rarely seen in modern factories, it’s also keeping with the times, as the only certified gluten-free and verified non-GMO operation in Louisiana.
Another place where the region embraces both its culinary past and future, is an hour-and-a-half drive east in St. Tammany parish. The wealthiest parish in the state, it’s home to a rich culinary scene, including the Covington Farmer’s Market, which offers great products and local characters. Shoppers can buy fresh eggs from “The Egg Ladies,” kombucha and bitters from “Kombucha Girl,” and Gulf shrimp from a career shrimper selling the day’s catch from an ice chest in back of his truck.
I toured the market with Keith and Nealy Frentz. Named King and Queen of Louisiana Seafood in 2012, the couple met and began their culinary careers in New Orleans and now run Lola (lolacovington.com), serving up contemporary Louisiana food and favorite family recipes — such as Nealy’s grandmother’s beloved hummingbird cake (banana pineapple spice cake). The restaurant is set in an old train depot, with a converted caboose housing the kitchen.
David and Torre Solazzo are another culinary power couple in St. Tammany. Nominated three times for the James Beard Award, they operate the hit contemporary Italian spot Del Porto Ristorante (delportoristorante.com), which offers an extensive wine list, in-house pasta and 10 varieties of house-cured salumi.
Also in St. Tammany, La Provence offers a range of French cuisine, some sourced from a farm in back of the restaurant, as well as classic dishes that have been on the menu for decades — such as the addictive pate served with bread, and flavorful quail gumbo. It’s owned by celebrity chef John Besh, who also owns five restaurants in New Orleans, including the elegant Lüke (where the rum-tinged bread pudding was the best I had during my trip — and I had a lot of bread pudding).
To get a close-up experience of St. Tammany’s natural resources, and a true sense of the parish’s local flavor, stop by Bayou Adventure (bayouadventure.com). This unassuming bait shop rents kayaks, fishing gear and bicycles, and can design outings for all levels of interests. It’s run by Shannon Villemarette, who moonlights as the city’s justice of the peace, marrying local couples when she’s not loading up kayak gear or helping visiting groups cook up their catch.
Villemarette’s fearless attitude (she’s been known to swim in the gator-populated bayous while fishing) — combined with her vocal advocacy of protecting the parish’s natural resources — makes the justice a fitting spokesperson for today’s Louisiana.
It’s an exciting place with memorable scenery and great food, both of which are being preserved so they can be enjoyed for a long time.
Original article: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/southern-louisiana-adventure-food-nature-lovers-article-1.1867917
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Arlen Benny Cenac, Jr.