Down on the bayou
A 6am drive through New Iberia parish in Louisiana. The sun is white and low in the sky and the dawn haze has already been driven off by its heat. We’ve had a breakfast of grits and eggs and taken a trip to the bait shop because we’re set to go crawfishing with Brandon, a local farmer and owner of the cottage on the river Teche where we’re staying. Earnest discussions as to what type of beer to bring – and shall we bring our rye whisky too? – have been had because Cajuns, and Brandon is one, are very serious about making work feel as little like work as possible. And when you live and toil in a place where the summer and autumn humidity is so high it can feel as though a wet hen is incubating the entire parish, a cold beer from an icebox fixed to the back of the truck is an effective antidote.
The crawfish pond is seeded with rice plants over the winter, which the creatures feast from during the crawfish season – which runs roughly until the end of May. Some crawfish are farmed in commercial rice paddies but Brandon doesn’t harvest his rice, leaving it for these voracious feeders and breeders whose numbers are so prolific he can farm at least seven to nine 30lb sacks per day merely by lowering baited traps into the shallow ponds. It’s not fishing really, it’s farming, and very hard work when the farmer has to deal with cottonmouth snakes, alligators, bugs the size of your head, mosquitoes and that endless, killing sun as well as the loss of land and freshwater as the southern part of Louisiana yields to the encroaching salt waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
This southern landscape was oddly reminiscent of parts of East Anglia: flat green fields and islands of trees in an endless landscape of sugar cane fields crosshatched by bayous, drainage channels and rivers. The roads are slightly elevated above the low-lying land which is populated by people who earn a large part of their living from hunting, trapping, fishing and agriculture. Just like East Anglia, Louisiana is geographically out on a limb and you have to commit to travelling there. You don’t just arrive by accident. It’s a watery, permeable landscape with an ever-shifting coastline and those low, never-ending skies. We felt both immediately at home and welcome strangers too. (Cajuns are ultra-friendly, fiercely proud of their heritage and if you like having a good time and don’t take yourselves too seriously, you’ll get on.)
In the UK, we have the American signal crayfish, an invasive non-indigenous species which we’re now encouraged to catch and eat to keep it in check. In Louisiana, crawfish have been caught and eaten for centuries, originally by American Indians who also grew corn. The two foods are natural partners. This cornbread is a trinity of sorts, combining three different ways of making and serving it, all enjoyed here and in New Orleans: a crawfish-stuffed version with clove honey from the Bywater Bakery; a simple cornbread served with cane syrup and butter at Willa Jean; and a recipe for sugared cornbread from chef Brad McDonald, who is from the south although a lot of other southerners find the addition of sugar a culinary heresy. It’s distinctly Yankee, according to many we spoke to, and Louisianans do love to talk about food.
We have great brown shrimp in England so their inclusion seemed appropriate and they stand up well to spicing – potted shrimps are flavoured with a mace-infused butter, after all. The spring onions were an essential part of the Bywater Bakery cornbread whilst the adding of honey or cane syrup to the butter spread lavishly on the cornbread beautifully compliments the sweetness of the shrimp and crayfish (our name for crawfish). It’s hard to find cane syrup in the UK although there are online suppliers so I have suggested an alternative in the form of maple syrup melded with runny honey, but you could just use honey or even leave it at butter.
Whatever you end up doing, this cornbread is great on its own but especially delicious with large slices of tomato and strips of crispy bacon (it must be crispy!) piled into a messy sandwich. I prefer it warm, straight from the oven, but you can toast it under a grill for breakfast the next day and serve with eggs and maybe some sauteed greens, some sausage, ham, or more bacon.
Cajun spiced crayfish and brown shrimp cornbread
6 slices of smoked, dry cure streaky bacon
4 spring onions, finely sliced (whites and inner green parts)
120g fresh peeled crawfish tails
100g fresh peeled brown shrimps
2.5 teaspoons Cajun seasoning (I used the Waitrose brand for this recipe but if you have the US brands Slap Yo Mama or Tony Chachere’s, use those,)
300g plain flour
300g fine yellow cornmeal
40g light brown soft sugar
1.5tsp baking powder
450ml whole milk
4 large eggs
30g unsalted butter, melted
For the butter:
100g salted butter
1 tbsp cane syrup. (If you don’t have this, mix equal parts of a mild-medium runny honey and maple syrup until smooth. Alternatively, drizzle the honey/maple syrup on top of your butter.)
You will need a loaf tin approximately 28x15x8cm.
Gives six to eight generous slices.
Heat the oven to 200⁰C.
Place the spring onions, shrimp and crayfish into a bowl and sprinkle them with 2 teaspoons of the Cajun seasoning. Toss to coat and leave to marinate.
Heat a frying pan with half a teaspoon of olive oil and when hot, add the streaky bacon and fry until the fat runs and it crisps up. Remove the bacon strips and keep for later. Take your loaf tin and pour the bacon fat into it, ensuring that the base and sides are well coated. Put the loaf tin into the oven to get the fat nice and hot again, just before you are ready to bake.
Place the flour, cornflour, baking powder, sugar and salt into a large mixing bowl and stir until well combined.
Break the eggs into another mixing bowl and beat well until foamy. Add the milk and melted butter, mix, then pour the wet ingredients into the dry ones and mix well until the batter is smooth and the seafood and onions evenly distributed. Remove the loaf tin from the oven, carefully pour in the batter (it might spit so stand back), sprinkle the last half of a teaspoon of Cajun seasoning over the top, swirl it lightly in and return the tin to the oven. Bake until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cornbread comes out clean. This should take 35-45 minutes depending upon your oven. I find cornbread can be a little contrary with regards to baking times, so it’s best to keep an eye on it. If it starts to brown too swiftly, cover the top with foil.
When done, leave to cool for five minutes then turn out and slice.
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