Cajun Caviar: Local fish eggs become treasured delicacy

The Atchafalaya, source of Cajun Caviar
The Atchafalaya, source of Cajun Caviar
Bowfin eggs are used to make the product
Bowfin eggs are used to make the product
Cajun Caviar
Cajun Caviar

A delicacy from a prehistoric fish straight out of the Louisiana swamps makes its way to fine dining spots in New Orleans and beyond.

At Dickie Brennan's Bourbon House, the chefs shuck fresh Louisiana oysters. On this day, from Lake Borgne and waters near Grand Isle, if it's not local, it's *not on the "plateaux fruits de mer" - French for seafood platter.

"And whenever you experience the shellfish in France, there was never cocktail sauce," Brennan said. "You would have caviar as a garnish."

Here, even the caviar is homegrown - caviar that Brennan stacks up against the finest caviars in the world.

In Patterson, situated in St. Mary Parish among cypress trees and loads of Spanish moss, fishermen reel in bowfin, or as the Cajuns call it, "choupique" from the swamps of Louisiana.

"Our first processing plant was here in St. Mary Parish," said John Burke with the Louisiana Caviar Company.

Burke says this is where "Cajun Caviar" was born.

"I met a little Cajun couple from down Bayou Teche here who had discovered that when they applied a caviar process to the roe of a choupique, that it turned black," Burke said. "And so I looked at it and said yes, it looked like caviar, and yes, it tastes like caviar, but who's gonna eat choupique caviar? This is considered a trash fish."

But in the mid 1980s, he shipped some samples off to New York and Dallas.

"I get these phone calls back, 'sure we'll take 10,000 pounds,'" Burke said. "I was like, holy cow!"

And in New Orleans, where cuisine is king, Burke brought his brand new Cajun Caviar product to Commander's Palace, where he met with the Brennan family and then-Executive Chef Emeril Lagasse.

"Russian caviar was on the menu at the time, and when they saw the quality of this caviar and the price of this caviar, then Emeril decided pretty quickly that they were taking the foreign caviar off the menu and using local-made caviar."

Burke had created a new American caviar business from a prehistoric fish.

"It's a 200-year-old species," Burke said. "You have the sturgeon, the paddlefish and a garfish - which the roe is toxic - and the kind of the sleeper on the list was our choupique."

Choupique roe has given locals another season of fishing.

"We'll have a group of commercial fishermen who will go out in the wild from about the beginning of December until about mid-February, and that's the time of year when the fish is holding the eggs, and they're big enough that we can process it in the caviar," Burke said.

In simple terms, that means separating the fish eggs from the fatty tissue and adding salt.

"Our Cajun Caviar is all natural - no added colorings or preservatives, and it's low in salt," Burke said.  "So we only use about four percent salt, which the Russians would call a top-of-the-line caviar."

Once it's processed into caviar, it's packaged and frozen. Mother Nature decides how much they produce.

"Last year we only produced about 2,000 pounds of caviar," Burke said. "This year we made about 20,000 pounds."

A successful season thanks to normal water levels and a cold winter.

"We like cold winters, yes ma'am!" Burke said.

People across the country and around the world have dined on the delicacy.

"We have exported all around the world," Burke said. "We used to export to Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, but with all the political turmoil there these days, we're not sending anything overseas."

"I don't think we've used any imported caviar in the last 28 years," Dickie Brennan said.

South of Bourbon Street at Sobou, Chef Juan Carlos Gonzales shows us Cajun Caviar in a savory dessert.

"It's just more of a play on tuna tartare with a savory ice cream," he said.

On top the tuna, he tosses in fresh pineapple, minced shallots, some green onions and Burke's Cajun Caviar infused with ghost pepper. He dishes that into a mini wafer cone and tops it off with a basil, avocado - and yes, caviar ice cream.

"They just freak out, man," Gonzales said. "It's like, 'dude how'd you come up with this?' And I'm like, 'I don't know.'"

Sobou bar chef Abigail Gullo serves up a "choupique in the water" mini cocktail. She starts with homemade pomegranate, adds tequila, and then champagne.

"And why not throw in some egg bubbles as well?" she said. "Some fish egg bubbles."

At John Besh's Restaurant August, we get an appetizer garnished with Cajun Caviar and Sous Chef Justin Cameron adds some burratta, which is cream-infused mozzarella, to a pastry shell. He bakes it and throws in some jumbo lump crabmeat.

"It's our cornmeal-crusted corn and burrata tart with fresh Louisiana caviar," he said.

Back at Commander's, where Cajun Caviar got started nearly 30 years ago, yet another dish.

"It's called caviar bacon and eggs," said Chef Tory McPhail. "So it's fresh redfish - we actually brine that, make bacon out of that - and the eggs are the caviar."

McPhail brines the redfish filets in Louisiana crawfish boil, seasons them with hot sauce, and rolls them into the smoker. He adds fresh greens, basil, mint oil and fresh caviar.

Burke says the caviar has been enjoyed by some very distinguished diners.

"President Carter, President Bush, President Reagan and President Ford all ate my caviar," he said.

So this prehistoric, fish long considered trash, is now treasured around the world.

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