Tomato onion and cheese pastries next to alligator sausage pastries sold in New Orleans

On a recent venture to the Big Easy I was fortunate enough to experience a lovely big slice of down ‘n’ dirty New Orleans soul food.

On a recent venture to the Big Easy I was fortunate enough to experience a lovely big slice of down ‘n’ dirty New Orleans soul food. I ate from one end of the culinary spectrum – grits and gravy, all the way through ‘gator’ dogs (I’ll get to them) to the most refined filé gumbo you could hope to taste; scribbling away as I went to share the details of my visit, in the hopes that others can more easily find their way to the good stuff. First up, try and take the tram or walk, locals are friendly and you’ll likely stumble upon an unmapped gem of a café or shop when taking a walk along the endless Magazine Street.

The city was not what I’d expected at all, although the ‘soul’ that precedes the ‘food’ across the Deep South was whole heartedly in evidence, just as I have found it to be in other Southern states, even more so in fact, everyone I spoke to was practically food obsessed. By ‘soul’ (and ‘soul food’) I mean the love that goes into good, honest home-style cooking. Originating in the times of slavery and, the Southern food movement has come into its own, successfully merging culinary influences from European settlers with African cooking techniques and flavours. This is particularly apparent in New Orleans where their particular brand of soulfood – Creole and Cajun take precedent.  Notably so at ‘NOLA’ restaurant where soulfood, Creole and Cajun are at they’re most modern and refined. Located in the French quarter in a loft like red brick building, NOLA is both comfortable and stylish. The open kitchen is unobtrusive, the staff friendly and the food refined and inventive without a hint of pretention.

 

Whilst in the French quarter take a stroll just to absorb the Spanish and French architecture; the cities multilayered history will come to life and serves as a visual reminder of the mingled cultures that have formed the cuisine as it is today. I always find the history of an area makes me more fully appreciate the different flavours that have created a dish.

If you want a rollercoaster party,(as many do when in New Orleans) get to tasting the Hurricanes and Sazeracs – two of the most infamous cocktails available, head for Bourbon street in the French quarter, but be warned partygoers begin early in the day and since drinking is allowed on the street here, the party is not contained by the bars. If the party life is not your bag, don’t skip the French Quarter, just avoid Bourbon street, there are plenty of chic but laid back bars you can sample the cities plentiful cocktails without venturing into the hustle bustle, look out for ‘Peychauds’s bitters’; an aromatic bitters blend created by the young Creole apothecary Antoine Peychaud in 1793, and an ingredient in many of the drinks.

If cocktails aren’t for you, look out for the brilliant array of local craft beers, available in many side street bars.

Also in the French Quarter is K-Paul’s, owned by chef Paul Prudhomme who is largely responsible opening up the world of Creole and Cajun food to the world – within minutes of opening a queue had formed (so book ahead). The atmosphere and food are much more traditional here, dishes are cooked as they have always been to tried and tested recipes and I have heard the menu hasn’t changed much in 20 years. K-Pauls is particularly well known for it’s blackened fish, the fried green tomatoes were fantastic too). Take a jacket they keep the air conditioning turned up high).

If you want to cook as well as eat try taking a lesson at The New Orleans school of cookery, whilst stocking up on spice blends in the cookery school shop is tempting on the way out, almost opposite, humbly tucked away is one of the best spice shops I’ve had the good fortune of spending a few hours (really). The Spice and tea exchange has a brilliant, authentic, flavoursome and totally natural range of local blends, including the hard to find in the U.K, filé powder (ground sassafras) used to thicken and flavour gumbo.  Look out for applewood smoked salt (seriously smoky) and espresso steak rub.

In New Orleans, you can’t get away without sampling a ‘Po boy’, most well known for these is ‘Johnny’s Po-Boys’. They are basically glorified subs, but in New Orleans they really know how to cook a mean gravy, making a Po Boy worth a taste. Another tourist haunt is ‘Café du monde’, hands down THE place to eat beignets (akin to a doughnut) dipped in café au lait. Get there early as the cue goes round the block. Around the corner is the food and flea market; here you can sample freshly shucked oysters and shop for hot sauce until your hearts content.

Emeril’s Delmonico is another slightly more upmarket restaurant to try, founded by another of New Orleans’ famous chefs Emeril Lagasse – there are a great many well known chefs from New Orleans and Louisiana – as I mentioned early, food is a serious business here. Situated on St Charles Avenue along the tramline almost into the Garden district. They serve classic Creole food, done well, no twists and their enormous BBQ shrimp n bay scented grit cake was served with the most amazing sauce. (Creole rather than Cajun has a notably French influence, with many dishes based around a roux; butter abounds).

On a less upmarket tangent, and still with reams of flavour the colourful ‘Dat dog’ seems to hold a place in the hearts of many locals. With a colourful and happy team serving ‘gator dogs with Creole mustard and every other ‘dog’ you can imagine. Their strap ‘makin’ the world a better place’ is fitting, pop in for a lunch dog as you take in the stunning houses that line the streets of the Garden district.

Good, inexpensive and local eateries are a dime a dozen, I visited many and it seems very hit and miss whether or not they’re any good – many of the most well publicized fell short, so I recommend getting out of the touristy zone and following your nose. Look out for blackened fish, debris gravy, crawfish étouffée, jambalaya, cornbread, shrimp remoulade and all manner of gumbo. For more notes on flavour look out for my blog dedicated entirely to the foods and flavours of New Orleans cuisine.

Aside from eating, there seems plenty of time to take in the culture at the customary leisurely pace.

Catch live music on street corners everywhere and it will likely be some of the best you’ve heard. Or get in quick for this years Jazz and Heritage festival to really get your fill.

If you really want to get into the spirit of things try and visit during Mardi Gras, the New Orleans carnival, and I am told, the highlight of the year for many. This is not just 1 or 2 days of carnival antics, an incredible 3 weeks of parades take place in the lead up to the big weekend (a moveable celebration falling anywhere from February through March).  School drumlines, floats, costumes and merriment abound, it is a truly sensory occasion, where food and festivities are paramount. The remnants of Mardi gras are thousands of coloured beads, thrown from carnival floats to revelers, the aim it seems to be to collect as many as possible…

Whilst soaking up the culture you may come across some incredible street art, much of which captures both the spirit of New Orleans and the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina.

If history, older or more recent is of interest, there are no lack of tours to be had. From 3 day ventures into ‘Arcadiana’ or ‘Cajun’ country – the cities rural counterpart, to Katrina tours educating visitors on the effects of the hurricane, to garden and plantation tours (the houses are magnificent and well worth a look).

Cajun culture originates in the 1700s with the refugees from Acadia, a French Canadian province now known as Nova Scotia. The countryside is diverse and has many freshwater swamps that hold a wonderful array of wildlife around which the Cajun cuisine is largely based. You can join fishing and hunting tours, eating tours, visit Lafayette – the cultural capital of Acadiana or visit Avery Island the home of Tabasco sauce – although you’ll find no lack of hot sauce on any table anywhere. You’ll see signs for these tours everywhere and they run most days.

There are also many tours around the picturesque cemeteries and historical ‘voodoo’ sites with plenty of spooky stories to keep you entertained.