Travelling along in an American vintage car I passed Obama and his entourage of cars just leaving New Orleans. The president of USA passing you on the road just 10 minutes after you have arrived - bet that doesn’t happen all the time.
After dropping bags and before I crashed out I had to experience some of those New Orleans smells that greeted me for myself. Stepping out onto the streets I found myself in the middle of a tropical storm, raging around and making the streets seem like rivers. One step out from under cover and you were drenched within an instant. It made me reflect on the hurricane and all the damage it had cause - evidence of which you can still see all around as you pass through the city. With no brolly, I braved the downpour and made my way to Bourbon Street, which drew me in from the smells wafting out of it. A bubbling couldron of people, jazz and cajun food rolling out and around you. With the steam coming up from the recent downpour it really was an amazing atmosphere and I found myself on the film set of Bladerunner. Weird.
Everywhere was full! Packed with people out of town over for Jazz Fest, finishing that night. I found a tiny Mexican café, tables of the local police digging into their mid-shift fajitas. Seemed like the thing to do, and I ordered some myself along with stuffed jalapeños and some crazy chilli cheese stuff which turned out to be something that I wasn’t bargaining for. A gelatinous mass of plastic cheese with a load of chilli thrown in. But hey, it didn’t taste so bad with some nachos and salsa chucked on the top. What can I say - I was hungry! On to better things though - the fajitas were great and fresh calamari meant my dinner was just the ticket after a long journey from the UK
Monday morning brought with it beautiful sunshine, and even more heat! Wow, all that steam and humidity in the air, along with the sunshine beating down on you and everyone in the street nodding a G’mornin’ to ya. First things first I head off to the French Quarter, winding my way through small blocks with stunning maisonette buildings either side of me, all with balconies laden with intricate iron-work and flowers drawing me in further to one of the most beautiful parts of any city I have seen. My meanderings deliberately brought me to a trumpet player blowing out as much jazz as someone can at 9am on a Monday morning outside the Café du Monde. This colonial style building with covered open air tables is home to the most popular and celebrated coffee to be had in New Orleans, also serving a type of French doughnut that they call beignets. The star of the show was the beignets which come on a mound of icing sugar, which you dip them into as you stuff as many down as you can. These were seriously good, and I can see why there are queues out the door to eat at this place. The coffee? Well, let’s just say, I don’t get it.
Moving on with stunning views of the Mississippi river to the right I wandered through the French market area, trying alligator on a stick and meeting the cactus lady. She didn’t seem very impressed with me when I asked if any of them were edible, so I took a picture of the tequila cactus and moved on. Stalls solely set up for selling cocktails were all around, as were people drinking the local speciality of Bloody Mary, even though it was only 11am. Well that’s the thing in New Orleans, you go with the flow. And so, with Jazz wafting through the streets I found myself drinking a local beer ‘to go’ and taking it all in.
I took a peek into a doorway with spicy Cajun wafts of steam escaping onto the street, and found myself in a different world - but one I was more familiar with; the back kitchen of a busy restaurant. Wayne, the head chef noticed me and came over to give the usual warm New Orleans greeting and we got chatting. He was in the middle of making stock for his gumbo from crawfish shells, although admitted they did bland it down for all the customers in the restaurant, as locals like him eat it mouth burning hot.
Moving on I came across a jazz street band and decided to pop into the Gumbo Pot for some lunch. This turned out to be enjoyable really only due to meeting a Quaker couple who were sitting next to me as they were visiting for the jazz festival, which they do every year, and recommended to me some places to eat that evening. The food? Well, I tasted blackened fish, not bad, jambalaya, crawfish etouffe and gumbo, no comment. Ok, well it was fine, but really just a stodgy mess on the plate. I was expecting more from it flavour wise and although all the spicing was in there, you could tell the kitchen wasn’t really putting much love into what they were cooking. I left disappointed, but with a recommendation for dinner that night, which gave me hope of better things to come.
Unfortunately, I found myself disappointed again. I don’t want to be down on the food I tasted, its just that’s the way things have turned out. An oyster house was the destination for that night’s food and I sat down with great expectations of the seafood to come. Half a dozen raw oysters, and half a dozen mixed cooked ones later and all I can say to you is that although they were fresh, the oysters were fed, so were very plump and tasted of flour. The mixed cooked ones were better, I admit, but using frozen spinach and plastic cheese is always going to taint the taste of any dish. This hasn’t put me off though, it has made me want to start cooking oysters rockafella and other delicious variations properly myself, and done well, with the fantastic local oysters in UK, I will be onto a winner.
A stroll through the red light section of Bourbon street, past the jazz halls and clubs took me to Lafette (I may have got that wrong), the oldest drinking house in New Orleans. There I soaked up the sounds of a pianist with americans crowded around him, all singing and chatting happily to each other, along with a beer in my hand and found I was content to be there, but in need of sleep. So, a great drinking hole was found at the end of a long, enjoyable and interesting day.
Up bright and early the next morning as I had signed myself up to a cookery class at the aptly named New Orleans Cookery School. This I was excited about, as we were going to learn about gumbo, jambalaya, pralines and bread pudding (a New Orleans speciality pudding that really is just like bread and butter pudding back home, but with a few more handfuls of cinnamon and nutmeg, and generally using pineapple instead of raisins). Laura opened up the class with a talk on New Orleans and its food history and influences. It seems everyone has put something into this culture’s spice pot, including the Spaniards, French, Germans, Italians and Africans to come up with a truly fabulous tasting cuisine, que and drum roll…..the gumbo.
Gumbo is a soup that originated as a bouillabaisse but then had a load of chicken, sausage and spices thrown in to make it a dish in its own right. With Laura showing us how to make a roux (not what you think - a load of hot melted lard with some flour thrown in and stirred until it turns brown) and ending up with a delicious soup, which had layers of spices and a depth of flavour that really was delicious - I was sold. Gumbo, cooked right, is a delicious thick soup that I would happily serve up in one of my future cafes back home. I just hope I will be able to do it justice, as it has a dedicated following out here, with everyone having learnt their own family recipe which has been handed down through the generations.
The rest of the class passed pleasantly, and the top tips I give anyone visiting New Orleans is go to the cookery class and learn something about the food. Get recommendations from them on where to eat in this fantastic, vibrant city - it will save you dollars as well as disappointment. But most importantly - DON’T DRINK THE COFFEE!
My time in New Orleans ends as Chris comes to pick me up to take me to the Harley Davidson centre, just outside town. Like most Americans out here Chris drives a huge truck. This form of machoism in the states is everywhere and although I have been here before, it does seem that the vehicles just get bigger and bigger. So travelling along with Chris he tells me about the hurricane and the effect it had on people who didn’t get to leave. The stories that didn’t get into the papers, because they wernt allowed to. Stories of how gangs set up camp in the city, charging people rent on their own homes, paying up if they wanted to stay safe. If safe can be a word used during those times. Everyone had a gun (and still does, ready for the next hurricane), and police were not afraid to use theirs, as rule of law went out the window. It seemed the use of firearms was the only way to get the attention from the outlaws running havoc through the city, loading up vans full of ATM machines they had just ripped out of the wall. A crazy, crazy time which saw devastation on so many levels. At least it seems people are now coming back and the city has recovered itself - on the surface at any rate.
Pulling up to the Harley centre and being able to browse round all the bikes was just about the best thing, if you are into bikes, which of course I am. It seemed only right for me to buy myself a new helmet whilst I was at it, just to make sure my Motel 6 road trip got off to only the very best of starts.
My bike was waiting for me, gleaming in the sunshine, and with a quick cheerio to Brian who helped get me sorted I was off on the roads.
My road trip had begun, and in such an amazing part of the country. As I got into the swing of things, with bikers waving as they passed on the other side of the road, I swept over bridges which covered miles of swap land as far as the eye could see. The sun was shining, and for me, knowing my motel room was booked ready for me at Lafayette I relaxed into the hum of the engine and started eating some miles. Perfect.
A good night’s rest in the first Motel 6 I had ever stayed at put me in good stead to get an early start off to Avery Island, home of the iconic Tabasco brand. Everywhere I have been so far on this trip there has been a bottle, in various sizes and flavours, on the table of every restaurant I have eaten. It isn’t just a little red bottle of hot sauce over here, it’s a way of life, and I wanted to find out more about it … as well as try to blow my head off on chilli sauce … it’s a macho thing.