by ROBERT FRITCHEY
On the corner of Iberville and Bourbon streets in New Orleans, the oyster bar at Dickie Brennan’s Bourbon House is in the midst of some tough company. Across the street, Felix’s has been serving oysters for 62 years, while next door, shuckers at the Acme Oyster House have been handing oysters across its old bar since 1924.
Open just two years, the Bourbon House is definitely the new kid on the block. But with its tasteful décor that includes picture windows and a colorful collection of oyster-serving platters, the restaurant is carving out a niche among cultivated diners, the sort who might order an elegant appetizer such as oysters on the half shell – with caviar.
To prepare that dish, says executive chef Jared Tees, the raw oysters are drizzled with mignonette sauce, topped with a dollop of caviar, “and that’s all you have to do.”
Since recipes are only as good as their main ingredients, Tees prefers his from local sources: His oysters come from the Louisiana coast; the vinegar in his mignonette is from a Louisiana cane-syrup manufacturer; and his caviar is supplied by New Orleans-based Louisiana Caviar Co.
“I’ve tried them all,” he says of caviar, “but this is something you don’t have to break the bank on. It’s not just the cost, though – you’re dealing with a really fresh product that
hasn’t come from very far, and it hasn’t been banged around like other caviars that are stacked up in big quantities in tins.
“The best thing we can do is use local products, which helps local people, which helps the local economy, and this is a small, entrepreneurial effort, you know, with John making deliveries by bike.”
“John” is Louisiana Caviar Co. owner John Burke, who fulfills some of his New Orleans orders from an insulated bag that he carries in his bicycle basket. He offers three varieties of American caviar to the New Orleans market – hackleback sturgeon from Illinois, paddlefish from Tennessee and bowfin from Louisiana. He packs his caviar in clear glass jars.
Burke offers a tasty sample of the exotic black beads, dipping into a jar with a mother-of-pearl spoon. Bursting on the palate, the caviar reveals bold and complex flavors – including a faint suggestion of the dark, peaty cypress swamp waters.
With the sky still pitch black at 5 a.m., commuters headed to work from Pierre Part, an Assumption Parish Cajun community on the eastern bank of the Atchafalaya Basin. Nearly two hours before sunrise, the traffic was surprisingly heavy as the town’s breadwinners drove south to the oilfield fabrication yards in Morgan City or east to the refineries that line the Mississippi River.
Another group of commuters took a different route to work, but instead of driving late-model pickups, they eased out of this freshwater-fishing port in small but strong aluminum skiffs. Bright beams of light swept through the darkness as these commercial fishermen, with powerful headlamps attached to their caps, lit cigarettes and lingered in the bayou until their running mates caught up. One after another, they quietly idled past the little backyard docks that fringe the bayou until, finally passing the last one, their powerful outboards loudly growled as they throttled up and rocketed off into the night.
Like narrow, steep-sided canyons, the bayous snake through the thick cypress forest – edged with the tall trees, cypress knees and face-whapping branches, there is little margin for error. But like any commuter, the fishermen have traveled this route countless times and know all the problem areas. Casting beams from their headlamps from side to side, they kept their eyes peeled for the landmarks that told them to slow down. Then, after gently sliding their rigs over a barely submerged stump or log, they were up and running again.
It was late January, the water was chilly, and the prehistoric fish called the bowfin – known locally as “choupique” – was on the move. Thirty-year-old Mike Hue aimed to catch some.
That morning, Hue’s usual deckhand, Julian Templet, carried our photographer in an accompanying boat; John Burke of Louisiana Caviar took his place.
Clarifying their relationship, Hue explained, “Right now, I’m fishin’, and John’s hustlin’ sales.”
FOLLOW THE RISING WATER
Choupique spawn over a three-month period, from December through February. The timing coincides with periods of high water, thanks either to locally heavy rains associated with the passage of cold fronts or with the melting of snow in the North. As the water rises, it breeches the banks of the bayous in low spots and flows up into the swamp. Spawning choupique follow the rising water and swim through these openings into the woods, where the male uses his tail to scrape out a large depression in the mud. After he cajoles a female or two to deposit her eggs there, he fertilizes them and then ferociously protects the eggs until they hatch.
Choupique are fierce predators with strong jaws, rows of small but sharp teeth and plenty of attitude – perfect bodyguards for the tasty and inexperienced fingerlings in the harsh waters of the primeval swamp.
In fact, the males protect their offspring until they’re about 4 inches long and have grown into hardened little predators themselves. “You’ll see a school of these little choupique and a big, long, snaky dorsal fin right in the middle of it, swimming right along with ’em,” explained inland fisheries biologist Mike Walker, with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in New Iberia. “And they’ll attack anything that tries to get to those fingerlings. So a lot of their young survive.
“I actually had a friend who saw a school of small fish in a little stream. He didn’t know what it was, so he put his face down there. His brother was videotaping him, and when he got down close to look at those fish, a choupique came out of the water and almost got him in the face! A male. They’re some kind of animal.”
WEIGHING THE ODDS
The preceding evening, Hue had set his nets near some of those openings to the woods. As he closed the distance to them, he began to weigh his odds of making a good catch and a good payday. With the water level up and the temperature down, conditions were promising. “The colder the better,” he said. “When it’s warmer, all the other little fish and crustaceans are swimming around more. So the bowfin don’t have to move as much for their food. Once it gets real cold, they have to start searching for their food. I don’t have any proof, but that’s what I believe, that they have to start looking harder for food, so they’re swimming more and in turn they get tangled in your nets.
Getting closer, he added, “I like to let a place rest for at least a week. This is a new spot – I haven’t tried it for two weeks.”
Finally, Hue’s headlight focused on a bit of reflective tape that was tied to the end of a cane pole. After powering his big outboard engine down to an idle, he eased toward his first net with high hopes. First he yanked the cane out of the mud, laid it neatly to the side of his skiff and began to haul back the net that had been fastened to it. The moment of truth had arrived.
The net is short, only about 25 yards long, and it didn’t take long to pull it up, considering there was nothing in it. But nearly at the end, there was a moonish glow in the tea-colored water that, as the net rose to the surface, crystallized into the first fish of the trip.
“There’s one,” shouted Hue with relief. But, slipping the fish from the webbing, he less enthusiastically pointed to the large dark spot on its tail, which identified it as a male. Fishermen can’t get rich in the caviar business by catching males, but Hue nevertheless threw the fish into a plastic tub. “I’ve got a buyer for those,” he said, adding that on a typical trip, he might get five or, at most, 10 males.
FISH ON BOARD
The second net held a single female, the third net another, and so it went, with some of the nets holding a single fish, others several and others nothing – “Strike out!”
By the time he had a quarter of his nets up, Hue cautiously began to suspect that this was shaping up to be a pretty good day. “Tell you what, we’re kicking ass right now. But that can change in a matter of minutes!” It didn’t.
By the time he’d pulled just half his nets up, he’d already had a good day. Grinning widely, with about 60 fish on board, he shouted above the engine, “I’m satisfied with that!”
The fish kept coming. One net held a dozen bowfin. “Up till now, 11 fish was my best. So you seen the best! This sure is some good fishing.”
From an uncertain beginning, this had turned into one of those magic days that help make up for the bad weather, hard work and mechanical breakdowns that plague a fisherman’s life; it’s like winning the lottery.
With the next net, there was a heavy “clunk” in the bottom of the boat. “A turtle! I keep ’em,” said Hue, “because I got a turtle farm.”
With the choupique’s spawning season lasting less than three months, Hue, whose fisherman father died when he was just 7, needed to diversify. In addition to buying and selling crabs and crawfish harvested by other fishermen, he leased some land, dug a 3-acre pond and filled it with thousands of slider turtles, which he exports to China.
The ambitious young entrepreneur and father of a 2-year-old daughter admitted that he was a little nervous because he had talked his wife into delaying construction on their new home so he could sink at least $60,000 into the turtle venture. “My wife’s a medical assistant,” he said. “She works for a surgeon out of Thibodaux, but I wish she’d be the surgeon.”
BREATHE LIKE A REPTILE
Whether the source of caviar is Russian sturgeon or Louisiana choupique, the fish must be alive when the roe is removed; otherwise enzymes rapidly degrade the quality of the product. Hence the early start: to get the nets up while the fish were still active.
Besides their protective fathers, another secret of the success of the bowfin is a lung that enables it to breathe like a reptile. As Hue clears the fish from the net, he stows them in plastic containers, where they stay alive through the morning. “I don’t let them lie on the bottom of the boat,” he said. “It’s clean, yeah, but it’s better to keep them off the bottom. They don’t get bruised, and it keeps the boat ship-shape.”
“That’s why I don’t just buy from anyone,” noted John Burke. “I know what I’m getting with Mike.”
In addition to marketing his own catch, Hue buys choupique roe from a couple of uncles and from his burly cousin Jimmie Duval, who, with his deckhand, wrapped up their day with a respectable 60 fish. But as Duval pulled alongside Hue’s boat and eyeballed his cousin’s catch, he appeared crestfallen.
Roping in his last net, Hue joked, within earshot of Duval, “He’s the second-best fisherman out here.” The barb triggered a good-natured exchange between the two cousins, who were both in palpably good moods.
“Don’t get caught in that net,” shouted Duval excitedly.
“Jimmie, I know where my net is. I’m a professional.”
“My deckhand’s a professional, but he caught just one yesterday.”
“Yeah, it’s hard to get good help.”
ONE FOR HIMSELF
By nearly 10 a.m., the sun was high, and the fishing was finished. The work was not.
Back at the family dock, the fishermen transferred their catch to their pickup trucks and hauled it to the nearby processing plant. With the season lasting just 10 or 12 weeks, Hue leases the plant, although he said he was thinking about building one for himself.
Though he now ships his ready-to-eat product to several other buyers around the country, Hue credits John Burke with setting him up. “I was looking to get into [the caviar industry], but I didn’t know everything about it. John’s been at it since the ’80s, and he’s pretty much hands-on. He knew the process and everything I needed, so he’s really the guy that got it started.”
Hue pays his other fishermen a little more money for their roe if they help with the processing, so they all remained at the plant. The rough-edged fishermen looked out of place in this indoor setting, particularly the ones who, without their own caps, sported disposable hairnets. Cleanliness is extremely important. “I’d like to know how many times a day I wash my hands,” said Hue, who explained that the facility is subject to frequent surprise inspections by the state Department of Health and Hospitals and the federal Food and Drug Administration.
“The state inspected us last month,” he said, “and the FDA man was just here yesterday. They come every year, and they never tell you when they’re coming – they just show up. We also have to be HACCP certified. John and I went through the HACCP program.” The unwieldy acronym stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, a sanitation-education program that has been required of the state’s seafood dealers since the mid-1990s.
Hue’s uncle made efficient work of the fish, quickly slicing them open with a razor-edged knife. The men gently extracted the egg masses, placed them in stainless steel bowls and inspected them for bits of tissue or other foreign matter. Removing a stray fish scale, Burke remarked, “We don’t want to sell that to anyone.”
After washing and inspecting the egg masses, the fishermen placed them in coarse, stainless-steel sieves and massaged them until the eggs separated and dropped through the screens into a bowl. And after yet another washing and inspection, they ladled the clean, grayish roe into bowls and passed them to Hue for curing.
After weighing the eggs in each bowl, he calculated how much salt to add. Before ice and refrigeration became readily available, caviar was preserved with heavy salting or by pressing it into dry cakes. But today’s standard for the finest caviar is the lightly salted “malossol,” which contains 5 percent or less salt. After weighing the appropriate amount of caviar salt, Hue thoroughly mixed it into the eggs by hand and set the bowls aside to cure. “In 15 minutes, we should have some pretty caviar,” he said. “When it’s cured, it turns black.”
“The bread can be white or brown, but the caviar must be black.” So said the fishermen of the Caspian Sea, who for centuries cured their caviar with a simple process identical to that of the Pierre Part fishermen.
“People think you need all this equipment, but you don’t,” explained Burke. “There are no preservatives but a modest amount of salt. Refrigerated, it has a shelf life of six weeks, which is a long time for a fresh seafood product.”
Traditionally, Russian caviar was stored in tins that were sealed with a wide rubber band. The tins often imparted a metallic taste, and the seals sometimes proved difficult to replace, particularly in a busy restaurant. Burke uses glass jars with screw-top lids, which are more easily resealed. Glass also has the advantage of not imparting a metallic taste, said Burke, who noted that some Russian companies have also switched to glass.
While Burke packed the freshly cured caviar in 1.5-ounce and 5-ounce jars, Hue joined the other fishermen outside, where the fishmongers were arriving to haul away the fish.
“We charge them a buck or two a head,” said Hue. “It pays the gas and the help. They take everything we catch.”
ASCENDING THE LADDER
Per capita, there are probably more independent entrepreneurs in south Louisiana than any other location in the country. An enviable wealth of renewable natural resources – thanks to the region’s almost unbelievably productive wetlands and its proximity to the bountiful waters of the Gulf of Mexico – supports thousands of self-reliant harvesters, whose products, in turn, support other entrepreneurs as they ascend the market ladder.
John Burke, 45, was an oil land man in Texas, until the mid-1980s oil bust. Later, he was helping out his mother, who was executive director of the St. Mary Parish Economic Development Consortium, when a fisherman and his wife came looking for assistance. The couple knew how to harvest choupique and how to process the roe into caviar but did know how to market their product. “They had third-grade educations, and Ph.Ds in living off the land,” said Burke of his partners-to-be.
Soon, they were producing several thousand pounds of caviar, which Burke shipped to New York. “I had no idea what the guy was doing with it,” he recalled. “After the second year, I asked him, and he told me he was using it to cut his hackleback sturgeon caviar. He was just using it to stretch his product, and I felt insulted. I told him, ‘I really think my product is of the quality to stand on its own.’ So I started calling on people in New Orleans.”
Today, Burke limits his marketing efforts to a handful of restaurants and retail outlets in the New Orleans area. “That’s all I want to mess with,” he says.
“It’s a real specialty item; it’s not a supermarket item.” But by the standards of Pierre Part, it is an industry. •