memphis1

Memphis Tennessee

It took approximately 16 hours to travel by plane from Australia to the southwest of the USA. Quite a distance really, so how can one not include a stop at Memphis, Tennessee? Missing a visit to Memphis would be a crime! The largest city in Tennessee is known for its good food and music… home of the blues, jazz and as many maintain, is the birthplace of rock n’ roll. For music lovers, Memphis is a compulsory destination and for avid fans of Elvis Presley like my husband, (who would have thrown a fit if we missed this stop) Graceland- is the mecca for Elvis believers. I, on the other hand wanted to experience Beale St for its famous nightclubs and cafes and its world-renowned barbecue (pork) ribs in America. Memphis style barbecue hold its own when pitted against the other southern states of North Carolina, Kansas and Texas also renowned for their barbecue culinary techniques.
Memphis-ribs

‘Chasing the American barbecue’ and learning the history and culture of the American south through this mouth-watering cuisine was my underlying excuse for going to Memphis. Food historians believe that in the South, the technique of smoking meat slowly over low hickory fire became the conventional method of cooking large amounts of meat to feed a mass of people. By the 19th century it became the accepted staple for social gatherings. Pork was also considered the main meat because it was inexpensive, abundant and therefore affordable to the poorer classes, particularly the Southern African Americans. In addition to the barbecue, fried chicken, corn bread and hush puppies have strong links to the African-American community and known simply as “soul food”. Juxtaposed with music-the soulful Mississippi blues or the delta blues- the obvious influence of southern American cooking is largely contributed by the Africans, brought to America in the 17th century as slaves. Much of American cooking in the south were contributions from Africa- red beans and okra, were integral ingredients to their staple food.

Memphis is really known for its pulled pork-shoulder, smoked, slow cooked and served either “wet”, with sauce, or “dry”, without sauce. Either way, Memphis ribs are delicious, savoury and tender, falling off the bone.
For foodies and rock n’ rollers, Memphis is definitely worth the long haul from home. And so, continuing our train journey from Dallas, and New Orleans, we boarded Amtrak’s ‘58 City of New Orleans’ train departing New Orleans, Louisiana crossing the state of Mississippi to stop at Memphis, Tennessee. Approximately 400 miles and about 8 hours later on the train, we arrived late at night (10 pm) and went straight to the Memphis Marriott hotel downtown to recover from an overload of senses, seeing the marvellous sights along the train track going north.

The next day, we set off to explore Graceland mansion. (What else?) . To get there, we took the free shuttle bus from Sun Studio in downtown Memphis to Graceland, only a 20 minute bus ride. Sun Studio runs a free shuttle bus to and from Graceland every hour on the hour. For more information on this free shuttle service, please contact Sun Studio at 1-800-441-6249 or visit the Sun Studio website.
Elvis’ Graceland colonial style mansion was what I expected, only smaller than what I imagined.

formal lounge- Graceland Mansion

formal lounge- Graceland Mansion

graceland
A true reflection of the glitz and glamour associated with Elvis, Graceland was home to the king of rock n’ roll for 20 years. The organised tour takes the visitors from the foyer, to the living room, kitchen, TV and poolroom and the ‘King’s’ favourite relaxation place, the Jungle room. For me, other attractions such as the Elvis Presley Automobile museum housing over 15 of his vehicles as well as his customised jet were just as interesting as his abode. The 1958 Convair 880 jet named after his daughter Lisa Marie is an extravagant bespoke mode of transport that features a living room, conference room, sitting room and private bedroom.

Ending the Graceland tour at the Meditation Garden, millions of fans would have paid their respects (as we did) to the place where Elvis was laid to rest. Seeing this, I convinced my husband that Elvis is well and truly dead! I say this, as it seems millions of true believers still have hopes he is alive and some think Elvis is still really alive! In fact just before his 25th death anniversary (August 16,2002 marked the 25th anniversary of the official death of Elvis Presley) a FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll of 900 respondents found that eight per cent who participated in the survey said that they believe there is a chance that Elvis could be alive. The poll estimates that there would be approximately 16 million American adults who believe Elvis is really alive. In Australia, the new compilation (If I can Dream) made number one on the ARIA (Australian recording industry association ) album chart
No wonder then that the long queues of visitors to Graceland have not abated to this very day.

Is Elvis really dead???

Is Elvis really dead???

From Graceland, the shuttle bus dropped us off at Sun Studio which is a ‘must’ for anyone who has an interest in music, specifically, rock n roll and the blues.

sun-studio

with Sun Studio recording icons

with Sun Studio recording icons

A guided tour in this quaint little studio is undeniably an education on the history that introduced legendary rock n rollers to the world… like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, B.B. King and many more. The small studio is a treasure trove of relics, memorabilia and rock n’ roll history. So with limited time, it’s best to plan ahead. Sun Studio is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily

Beale Street was the other reason why we had Memphis on our itinerary- our next ‘must experience’ destination. Known as the USA’s most iconic street, Beale St is right in the heart of downtown Memphis; runs from the Mississippi River to East Street and is approximately 1.8 miles (2.9 km) long. The street has a long and interesting history that started in the early colonial years of the USA. Due to its proximity and easy access to the Mississippi River, in those days, Beale was a place bustling with merchants and traders doing their business. From here it was inevitable that in addition to merchants, entertainers flocked to the street. In the 1860’s musicians started performing there, which soon led to the transformation of Beale as a place where the population would congregate to socialise; where music was the common denominator. Beale’s heyday was in the 1920’s to 1940’s as blues and jazz greats like Albert King, Louis Armstrong, Memphis Minnie, Muddy Waters, and B.B. King (B.B. stands for Blues Boy) graced Beale St with their presence. Historians argue that this was when and where the Memphis Blues or Delta Blues style of music was born.

Beale Street comes to life at sundown

Beale Street comes to life at sundown

If New York is a town that never sleeps, then Beale St must be the street that never sleeps – a serious contender to New York’s Times Square. The carnival atmosphere was undeniable the night we were there. People in cafes and bars, music blasting from the clubs that lined the street; the young frolicking with various cocktail concoctions in their hands, some half boozed, very boozed but all seemed harmless and merry, having a fabulous time as we did.

The Blues City Café was our chosen place to try the famed Memphis barbecue ribs. On the menu, there was quite a large selection of Southern style food but we couldn’t go past the barbecue ribs. In fact, I had the combination platter of half rack of ribs and a catfish fillet served with baked beans, cole slaw, new potatoes, Texas toast, and tartar sauce. I didn’t regret this choice. It would have been the best ribs I’ve ever had and Blues City Café’s claim of having the best ribs in Memphis was justified. So much so that we purchased their ‘secret’ seasoning in a jar.

dining on Memphis tucker, Blues Cafe

dining on Memphis tucker, Blues Cafe

On our second and unfortunately last day, we took the MATA heritage streetcar to explore Memphis resulting to an impression that during the day, the town lacked the glitz and glamour we witnessed the night before. Because of this we thought we would head back to Beale St. It turned out to be a good move as we were rewarded with the parade of various interesting floats. Apparently it was part of the annual Memphis music festival. Not quite the same as the Rio Carnival floats but a hoot nevertheless.

As luck would have it, our visit to this incredible food and music town coincided with the event dubbed as ‘Memphis in May’. It is a month long event held each year to celebrate what I believe is Memphis’s undisputed reputation of dominance in music and food. We settled down to enjoy and experience The Beale Street Music Festival held at Tom Lee Park on Beale with an entertaining line-up of musical local and national artists. The bonus was watching the uninhibited audience dancing to the rhythm and blues. It was a great afternoon.
Memphis in May is also known amongst serious foodies in America for the World Championship Barbecue Contest, earning a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest pork barbecue contest in the world.

The finale of our Memphis visit was another meal of barbecue ribs and fries while being entertained by blues music at BB King’s café on Beale. At the time of our visit to Memphis, BB King was still alive, but alas, he was nowhere in sight.

beale-st

queimada

Spain: Queimada

Santiago de Compostela in the province of Galicia in northern Spain is bordered by Portugal in the south. Because of this close proximity, most wine connoisseurs liken the style of Galician wines to Portuguese wines. On our visit to Santiago de Compostela where we later on boarded El Transcantábrico Gran Lujo, RENFE’s tourist train, we had the pleasure of trying some of the local wines. In one of our meals at a restaurant, we met the owner, a delightful man from Uruguay. He made us sample scallops and some of Galicia’s delicious seafood dishes. We also learned from him that Galicia has always been Spain’s provider of white wines, normally consumed with fish and seafood meals. Amongst these is the famous Albariño, regarded as the most outstanding grape of the Rias Baixas, a Spanish Denominación de Origen (Denomination of Origin – established only in 1988 although wine cultivation in Galicia is said to have originated in Roman times) for wines located in the province of Pontevedra and the south of the province of A Coruña in Galicia. He encouraged us to visit some of the town’s wineshops so the next day, we ventured to search for the right bodeguero, (cellarman) which we found in the old part of Santiago. However, it was really the Galician liqueur that caught our interest when we went to browse at this particular bodega or wineshop (or wine cellar) in Santiago.

Earlier on, I read somewhere that this liqueur has something to do with Galicia’s Celtic past. This was enough incentive to blatantly enquire about the Orujo.
“So, you have heard about our Galician Aguardiente or Orujo?” The charming bodeguero graced us with a cheeky smile. He said: “Orujo is the alcoholic spirit that is produced by distillation of fermented grape skins from the residue of winemaking. It is infamous for its use in making a potion- our version of punch. It is called Queimada, and is a product of a tradition that dates back to Celtic times. This ‘magical’ drink is believed by many Galicians to purify the soul and the ritual that surrounds its preparation is intended to ward off evil spirit. According to convention, the Aguardiente is poured into a traditional earthenware bowl, flavoured with herbs or coffee, plus sugar, lemon peel, coffee beans and cinnamon and then set alight. Whilst the alcohol is burning a Conxuro, a sort of a spell or incantation is read out to ward off demons, evil spirits, and witches; in particular, las meigas, the famed Galician witches said to haunt our region’s men and women… and then more brandy is added. This ancient drink is usually savoured late in the evening…..the dead of night when anything is possible.” Flashing his pearl white teeth as he grinned, I was already enchanted by the good looking cellarman.

The golden liqueur on the shelf looked harmless and my curiosity was sparked. He must have sensed this as he continued to educate us with this particular alcoholic beverage.
“But you know sometimes it’s okay to drink the Queimada during the day. Here in Galicia, we get a lot of rain and when we don’t see the sun, sometimes, we have la melancolía ; el blues, you know?”

“So, the Queimada is the potion to help get rid of the melancolía?” I interjected, hoping for an excuse to savour the drink.

“Well, the importance of the preparation ritual is to protect the drinker from the bad spirits but now, we think all occasions are good for a queimada: a party, familiar meetings or gatherings of friends.”

Well then, no need to wait for sundown. Cheers! He said with a twinkle in his eye.

More on: Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain) ISBN: 9781468970203

Available at: Barnes and Noble and Google Books

San Sebastian

Spain: San Sebastian – gastronomic epicentre of the world?

The last and final stop on our short but epic (in many ways) train journey on El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo was San Sebastian in the Basque country of northern Spain. True to form, the rain in ‘Green Spain’ continued during the last leg of our travel. We were transported by our luxury coach from Villasana de Mena to the doorstep of the grand Londres and Inglaterra hotel in San Sebastian, located right next to the beach and overlooking the La Concha Bay. “I need another pair of walking shoes,” I moaned. A final guided tour of San Sebastian was an inclusion in our El Transcantábrico package but with the teeming rain and my already soaked shoes, my husband and I decided to wander on our own, as soon as the rain eased off. Luckily, we independently booked another three full days to explore this pretty seaside enclave, on the coastline of the Bay of Biscay.

So close to France, about twenty kilometres away, rumour has it that the French aren’t too happy with San Sebastian. The likes of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain has declared that San Sebastian is now the mecca for food lovers, the centre for where innovative and progressive cuisine is created. Now considered by foodies to be the culinary hub of the world where food creation is an art form, for the ultimate stopover of our Spanish trip, we wanted to see for ourselves if this claim is justified. According to one of our American travel companion, a keen follower of Anthony Bourdain herself, San Sebastian boasts of having 16 Michelin starred restaurants in its doorstep and two of these are on the top ten restaurants in the world list. …Mugaritz and Arzak and let’s not forget Berasategui, voted as number 32. Spain has overtaken France for the honour of producing creative food; where art meets culinary science.

Having dined very well on our eight day tour of northern Sain aboard El Transcantabrico Gran Lujo , we needed to give our stomachs a well-deserved rest. It was simply impossible to indulge anymore on multi course fine dining. As I continued to mull our options, the travel gods seemed to be with us during this first reckless and decadent adventure. As luck would have it, while waiting for the rain to stop at the hotel lobby, we came across a foodie blogger, a traveller like us.

“Australian?” She asked. She then told us she was there to write a story about the culinary competition, San Sebastián Gastronomika, to take place some weeks later in November. She gushed enthusiastically, (her Melbourne Australian accent unmistaken) about the forthcoming food congress that will feature world renowned Spanish chefs like Ferran Centelles of El Bulli, Josep Roca of El Celler de Can Roca and of course San Sebastian’s very own Juan Mari and Elena Arzak, Arzak Restaurant. In the meantime, before the food congress, she was going to explore northern Spain and spend some time and head west, basically covering the very trail we just left behind. She gave us good advice. In the food scene, we couldn’t leave San Sebastian without experiencing the pintxos-crawl (pronounced pinchos). No, it’s not a new dance craze, it simply means joining the locals after 9 pm across the old town to wander from bar to bar, drink, socialise and sample bite size snack foods, usually food in toothpicks, cocktail sticks or skewers to attach the main ingredient on sliced bread that accompanies it. “Aren’t those tapas?” “No, no, no..,” the horrified blogger warned. “Get informed. Not all of Spanish food is Tapas (or paellas for that matter). Essentially, there are several ways of serving small dishes, one of these are tapas or snacks usually served with cerveza-beer, wine or any soft drink. Pintxos are bite- size food on a skewer or toothpick.” Tapas as we know it, are thought to date back to the 15th century comes from the verb tapar, meaning to cover. Then, the Andalusian traveller quenched his thirst in taverns and used the bread or plate to cover his glass of wine, beer or sherry from buzzing flies. Many say this is the connection, the origin of the word. On the other hand, Pintxos or pinchos, originating in the Basque comes from the verb pinchar meaning to pierce.”
Okay, we get it; let’s not get too pedantic about this, I thought. Regardless of semantics, pintxos, tapas, platos or raciones, this way of serving and enjoying food is deeply rooted in the Spanish way of life and I had no trouble wanting to experience the ‘crawl’ in the short while we were there.

pintxos barSan Sebastian has indeed a lot to offer the wandering bon vivant. With a concentration of 500 bars in the Parte Vieja or old quarter, it is a ‘must do’ while there. That night despite the rain, we energetically descended on the old part of town ignoring the numerous and impressive historical buildings around us and headed straight to Calle 31 de Agosto. We were told that this is where some of the best pintxos bars are found. Indeed, the narrow street was lined with bars. Our first stop was A Fuego Negro, a bar highly recommended by the food connoisseur we met earlier. The place was packed with locals and we could hardly move but wasn’t this a good sign? They say, one should always go to places where the locals go. Anticipating the promise of haute cuisine in bite size form, we pointed to a few colourful items in different shapes and sizes: olives, cheese, ham, anchovies and even barnacles, grabbed a plate each which the waiter filled with our choices. We paired these pintxos with the Rioja wine on display. I would have wanted to have a glass of txakoli (pronounced Chak-o-LEE) a slightly sparkling Basque white wine, poured by the bartender from a height to create the bubbles (pretty much like our cider experience in one of the cider houses in Galicia and Pico de Europa) but we wanted to try more bars, more pintxos and more drinks so we can do the proper ‘crawl’ starting from one end of the street to the other. Six bars later, we had our fill of hot and cold pintxos, wines of various colours and sizes. “No more”, I groaned. Once again, I overdid the pintxos sampling and couldn’t fit in another morsel, even if I tried. “Tomorrow, we will have to try the other pintxos strip she recommended”. With pintxos so inexpensive at an average price of €3 (some were as low as €1 each), we were looking forward to another night of crawling, sampling, drinking and a lot of fun.

tapas

More on: Railway to Heaven (On board the luxury train in Spain) ISBN: 9781468970203

Available at: Barnes & Noble and Google Books

642

Dallas and Fort Worth Texas

My mental images of Dallas Texas were inspired by the set of ‘Southfork ranch’ and the Ewing brothers. As an avid follower of the high rating TV series ‘Dallas’ during the 80’s, I was always keen to visit Dallas before I get too old to travel. A couple of years ago, a re-make of this series was created but was short lived. I guess the storyline of powerful families feuding over rich oilfields no longer appeal to young viewers. I was a fan of JR and Bobby Ewing so when Qantas decided to make Dallas Fort Worth a major route from Sydney Australia, my husband and I were easily enticed to book a return ticket despite it being the longest non-stop flight in the world, a total of nearly 16 hours from Sydney. We also decided to make Dallas the starting point of our first American train experience, a ‘vacation by rail’ on Amtrak.

Dallas is located in North Texas and the largest inland metropolitan in the USA. It has the distinction of having George W Bush as its 46th governor (from 1995 to 2000) and Dallas is where a homage to the former US president was established. Dallas is also the infamous place where President John F Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Dallas and Fort Worth owe their development and growth to the construction of major railroad lines to service the cotton, cattle and oil industries around the county. Everything about Dallas and Texas for that matter is vast. It is spread out with major interstate highways converging and looping around and into the city.

We were keen to find out what Dallas Texas had to offer. For our first visit to this southern state, we were booked by Vacations by Rail at the Hilton Dallas Lincoln Centre. The hotel was a good choice as it was a short drive from the airport and was a convenient place to get over our jet lag and the long haul from Sydney. The 4 star Dallas Hilton hotel boasts of the usual amenities one expects from this type of lodging. It is also a short walk to the Galleria shopping mall and 10.9-mile(17.54 km) drive to downtown Dallas. Furthermore, Amtrak Dallas Union station is close by, about 10.2 miles (16.4 km) from the hotel. To make it easy for their guests, the hotel provides shuttle services to the Galleria and the belt line , which was in fact full of good restaurants such as Chamberlain’s steak and chop house.

Given we had limited time in Dallas, as soon as we checked in, we headed to the Galleria, a big shopping and dining mall, in search of good Texan food. A sumptuous meal of the fabled American steak would have been a good start but being a bit disoriented with the change in time zone, we wanted to start with something lighter. Besides, isn’t Texas known for Tex Mex food? The first restaurant we saw at the Galleria that looked inviting was Mi Cocina . On their menu was a selection of classic Tex Mex food prepared and served with an innovative twist. But what is Tex Mex and is it different from Mexican food? According to our ebullient waitress, Tex Mex is a fusion of Mexican and American cuisine. It is basically the type of food one finds in America particularly in the southwestern sates north of the (Mexican) border. The major differences between classic (and regional) Mexican cuisine and Tex Mex food would be the heavy use of ingredients such as shredded cheese, beef, pork and spices such as cumin and the cooking or preparation time on the latter . It would seem that there is a lot more to the preparation of traditional Mexican cuisines to the Tex Mex version. In fact a lot of dishes identified as ‘Mexican food’ is Tex Mex. Typical examples are, chilli con carne and fajita. The evolution of this style of cooking was born out of heritage and the need to adapt to local taste preference and ingredients. Tex Mex has its origins to the early *Mexican settlers in Texas who were mostly from Northern Mexico or the Spanish settlers when Texas was still a Spanish colony.These were Spanish or Mexicans who lived in Texas before it became a republic. To this day Tex Mex dishes continue to evolve but it’s interesting to note that in the earlier days, out of necessity, the Mexican cooks or chefs liberally used beef, which was also the preference of Texan Gringo ranchers who raised and traded cattle so naturally, beef was an abundant staple. In fact even today , beef is hardly used in Mexico.

*Tejano culture, a Texan of Criollo Spanish or Mexican heritage

Having said that, at Mi CModelo beerocina ( a chain of family restaurant with locations in Dallas, Fort Worth, Tulsa, Houston and Atlanta) for my first Tex Mex meal in Dallas, I opted for the Tilapia Veracruz; fresh Tilapia fillet sautéed with garlic and lime served with sliced avocado, vegetables and arroz verde ( green rice) with a side of their house made Veracruz sauce. It was delicious and just what I needed, washed down with a couple of glasses of frozen Margarita. It was sort of mid afternoon and my rationale then was it had to be cocktail hour somewhere in the world. Besides, I was certain we were going to just ‘crash’ after this foray as soon as we got back to our hotel. My husband had the shrimp brochette; grilled jumbo shrimp (or prawns as we call it here in Australia) stuffed with Fresh Jalapeno and Jack cheese, wrapped in smoked bacon, served with bean soup, rice and guacamole. Modelo beer was the choice of beverage with his meal.
We strolled around the Galleria to digest our food and try and get into the time zone but alas, an early night beckoned when we could no longer fight the tiredness from the long flight.

The list of tourist ‘must sees’ in Dallas and surrounds is quite long. We really only had time for the legendary Ewing mansion, Southfork Ranch, about 25 miles northeast of Dallas. Obsessed as I was with the TV series, I wanted to see where the series was filmed. It didn’t disappoint. The Ewing mansion was what I imagined it to be and there were lots of other activities and even rodeo shows.

Now that we’ve had glimpses of Dallas, we wanted our final evening to focus on food once again. The famous Texas Steak was on our sights so with the help of the hotel’s concierge, the shuttle bus dropped us off at Chamberlain’s Steak and Chophouse on Beltline Rd, known to be the best steak house in Dallas. Owned by Richard Chamberlain, who is considered one of America’s leading chefs, we knew from the moment we walked into the restaurant, that the evening would be special. The ambience was reminiscent of many fine dining establishments , the service impeccable and the food and wine were excellent. It would be one of our 4 star rated meal during this train trip in America.

Dallas food

calle real

New Orleans, Louisiana- The Big Easy

When we decided to explore America by train, the first stopover on our Amtrak train journey from Dallas was New Orleans. The city that typhoon Katrina devastated in 2005 was always on our- ‘must visit before it’s too late’- list. Celebrity travel writer Paul Theroux wouldn’t have approved of our planned itinerary as it was really jam-packed and resembled a typical ‘tourist junket’ of things to see in 3 days. A traveller would, as Theroux says in his books, observe, blend in with the locals and learn as much about the destination and its soul. Well, in this instance, we didn’t want to pretend. We wanted to see it all in 3 days with ‘food’ first and foremost on our minds .We figured this would surely reveal what New Orleans’s complex heart and soul are made of. Layers and layers of history and heritage are reflected in food and its preparation, right? We wanted to take a few bites of typical New Orleans food and guzzle their beverages to have some insight on this town’s eclectic and fascinating heritage.

traces of New Orlean's French and Spanish colonisers

traces of New Orlean’s French and Spanish colonisers

After settling in at the Doubletree by Hilton, we wandered off to Bourbon St. in the old part of the city otherwise known as the French Quarter. Notorious for its hedonistic attractions: bars, strip clubs and so close to the red light district on Basin St, we would have loved to be right in the heart of the French Quarter for the Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) , the annual carnival celebrated, the day before ash Wednesday. But as we were there in early Spring, we missed out but coincidentally, the annual New Orleans Jazz festival was starting on our last day there which kind of makes up for the missed Mardi Gras opportunity. What luck!

early evening -Bourbon St, New Orleans

early evening -Bourbon St, New Orleans

A friend recommended we start the bar hopping at the historic Sazerac Bar, Grand Roosevelt Hotel. The setting and décor is homage to the magnificence and opulence of classic days gone by. The Sazerac bar is named after what many think is America’s first mixed drink, created by Antoine Peychaud way back in 1838 from his favourite French brandy, Sazerac de-Forge et fils. Sazerac is the designated cocktail ‘must have’ when in New Orleans and synonymous to this party town. Its main ingredient is of course the brandy or cognac but some bars substitute rye whiskey. It is mixed with sugar cube, and Pechaud’s bitters in a glass swirled with absinthe or Herbsaint…the result which many say is interesting. (the jury is still out on that)

We were then in search of a meal and headed straight to Court of Two Sisters primarily because we wanted to experience the ambience of this historic property and dine al fresco in what is said to be New Orleans’ largest outdoor dining courtyard. The building itself has a long history dating back to the 18th century and the restaurant is named after two sisters who belonged to a prominent Creole family.

Court of Two Sisters

Court of Two Sisters

The Creole seafood gumbo on the menu caught our eye, a stew of seafood served on rice. What gives this food a distinct flavour are the mixture of spices such as sassafras and bay leaves and the okra, a vegetable from West Africa which were introduced to the Americas by the West African slaves. For our first meal in New Orleans, we shared this as starters followed by the Corn fried Louisiana Catfish for me and the Charboiled Tenderloin of Beef served with marchand de vin and béarnaise sauces, potato mash and haricorts verts for my husband. I thought my catfish was typical New Orleans food more so than my husband’s tenderloin beef. Nevertheless, enjoying the dinner was not a big ask. Who could complain when we dined in a superb setting; relaxed by the soothing sound of the water in the fountain, entranced by the fragrance of flowering shrubs under the trees which were adorned with fairylights. The ambience was just fantastic! The French Quarter reminded us of its many distinct French heritage but caught glimpses of Spanish too. The food and drink we’ve had so far had the eclectic characteristics of the colonial past of New Orleans peppered with the distinct influence of the African slaves bought to the Americas in the early 17th century.

Next on our list was breakfast at the historic Café du Monde known for its beignet and chicory flavoured coffee. Once again, the undeniable French influence was evident insofar as Beignets are square-cut pieces of yeast dough heavily dusted with powdered sugar, much like donuts but do not have a hole in them. This treat was introduced by the Acadians, (descendants of the French colonialists) and has become somewhat of another ‘must try’ when in New Orleans. The chicory flavoured coffee by tradition must be served ‘au lait’ (although some have been know to order this ‘black’) and according to the Café du Monde, coffee was also introduced to the Americas by the French and sometime during the American Civil War, they added the roasted and ground root of the endive plant into the coffee to soften its bitter taste. This resulted to the unique blend of coffee and chicory.

Beignet Cafe

Fortified with these, we explored the city, in and around Jackson Square, taking in the party atmosphere and enjoying the music from different buskers.
Most interesting was this man.

Bourbon Street Busker

Bourbon Street Busker

We then ventured on to Canal Street and hopped on a cruise along the (muddy) Mississippi River aboard the Steam Boat Natchez, with one of the remaining four steamboats with the celebrated ‘Steam Calliope’. Considered a uniquely American instrument and linked to steamboats since 1865, the ‘Steam Calliope’s ‘music came from the steam plumes shooting from each whistle played. It aint jazz or rock n roll, but this quaint sound added to a distinct atmosphere to our cruise.

Our concierge was kind enough to get us a table at Arnaud’s that evening . Located at the French Quarter just a few meters away from Bourbon St, this fine establishment boasts of classic Creole food, allowing diners to choose from any of their 3 dining areas; the more relaxed atmosphere at their Jazz Bistro, fine dining at the main dining room or simply sipping cocktails at their French 75 Bar. We chose to dine casual at the Jazz Bistro and was entertained by live jazz music. After all, isn’t New Orleans the birthplace of jazz? (Memphis and Chicago will disagree). But we really came for the food. We couldn’t go past the ‘Arnaud’s signature dish’, a starter of Shrimp Arnaud , marinated shrimp in tangy Creole remoulade sauce and mains of Speckled Trout Meunière for me and the Roast Louisiana Quail Elzey for my husband. Both didn’t disappoint, our dinner was delicious! We skipped dessert to make room for an intended night cap at the Old Absinthe House.

Old Absinthe House

On our last day, we shunned the organised tours. Instead we took the streetcar to have glimpses of the past, of days gone by. There are 3 streetcar lines operating in New Orleans: St. Charles, Canal Street, and the Riverfront. Our interest was in the antebellum mansions so it was the St Charles line for us. The 13.2-mile route (21.2 km) from Carondelet at Canal Street in the Central Business district through to the oldest section of uptown New Orleans and through St Charles Avenue can only be described as ‘grand’. Populating the St. Charles Avenue has got to be the most superb collection of historic mansions in the South of the USA. Lined beautifully with old trees covered with Spanish moss, St Charles Avenue stretches from Uptown to Downtown . The surrounds and antebellum houses do take one back to the glorious epoch of 19th century New Orleans.

Old World New Orleans

Old World New Orleans

It was indeed a sight to behold and later, while I devoured my Po- Boy for lunch, still impressed with what we saw, images of the likes of Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler came to mind. I couldn’t shake of this imagery for some reason.

The quintessential Po-Boy, a typical New Orleans sandwich has a history that dates back to the Great Depression. Legend has it that during that era, enterprising streetcar workers who were on strike opened a sandwich shop for a means to survive. They used cut potatoes and roast beef gravy for fillings at the time. However this popular New orleans sandwich has evolved since then. Ask any native of New Orleans and he will tell you that the Po-Boy is the best sandwich in the world. Yet , what is sacred about the Po-Boy is the quality of the bread. It has to be crunchy and crusty on the outside and soft in the inside. Add the filling of whatever you may fancy, may it be fried shrimp, ousters, catfish, soft shell crab, or roast beef, the finale will have to be the “fixin’s” – pickles, hot sauce, lettuce, mayo, etc. We were advised to order and eat the Po-boys the way locals do and that is ‘dressed’ or ‘with all of the toppings.

The final evening was spent at the Snug Harbour Jazz Bistro along Frenchman St. We could have gone to the famous Preservation Hall but wanting to see and feel the heartbeat of the famed ‘hub of jazz and culture’ in New Orleans, we chose to walk to our destination. The party atmosphere was palpable and felt as though the hype on the heavily touted jazz festival was paying off. Pity we were only going to witness glimpses of it as we were set to take our train to Memphis the next morning.

French Quarters New Orleans

Mississippi River