Perique tobacco produced soley in St. James Parish

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 2, 1998

LEONARD GRAY / L’Observateur / October 2, 1998

GRAND POINT – Perique tobacco, one of the rarest treats in existence for people around the world, became even more rare this year. That’s becausePercy Martin’s crop was hurt by the drought.

Martin, 80, is the sole producer of authentic St. James Perique tobacco inthe world. That’s right – the sole producer.Perique tobacco in the dictionary is defined as “any tobacco cured under pressure,” however, that’s not the whole story. There’s a certain varietywhich is nowadays only produced on a small, 13-acre farm in a tiny village in St. James Parish. It’s incredibly strong, sweet-smelling andgives a spiciness to certain tobacco blends which cannot be reproduced elsewhere.

Martin has a long history with perique. He inherited the business from hisfather, grandfather and great-grandfather and hopes to pass it along to his sons.

Perique itself has a long history, back to when (according to legend) the secret of perique production was passed from the local Indians to Pierre Chenet in the 1820s. Once there were several perique farms in St. JamesParish, including at Remy, Hester, Paulina, Lutcher and Belmont. Now,there is only Martin in Grand Pointe.

Normally, in a good year, 30 to 40 barrels are produced by Martin and his five sons. In 1996 he produced 42 barrels. Last year, with frequent heavyrains, he only had about 10 barrels. This year, with the months of drought,he only managed 11 barrels.

One might think Martin could set his own price, but he said that’s not the case.

“It’s a buyer’s market,” Martin said, as he related his marketing problems with, first, Raymond Poche’s Perique Tobacco plant in Convent, then with the American Tobacco Company.

He sells the tobacco at around $3.35 per pound, yet he sees the imitation”Kentucky perique” retailing in French Quarter tobacco stores at $1.75 perounce.

“The smell and taste is not the same,” Martin said.

Professor Christopher Brown of Tulane, a perique booster for years, said he can help Martin sell his tobacco for many times what he now receives.

Brown, in a recent letter to Martin, said: “Since you personally produce about 95 percent of the real Perique grown in the entire world and people from Europe and even Russia travel to Louisiana to beg you to sell your tobacco to them, it is now a seller’s market.”Brown added, “You are now in a position to sell your fine product for whatever price you choose.” Brown even suggested retailing at $15 per quarter-pound, $55 per pound and $200 for a 4-pound quarante, or twisted roll of the rare tobacco.

Martin, however, is doubtful, even of internet marketing. “It’s not gonnasell the way he thinks,” he said.

Perique is too intensely flavored for pure consumption, though a few have tried. Martin, a non-smoker, said he tried to chew some once and wasviolently sick.

Instead, St. James Perique is a popular ingredient for smoking blends,usually taking about 5 percent to impart its unique spice to a blend. Yearsago, a brand of pure Perique cigars called St. James Maid were producedand marketed.

The production of St. James Perique is a slow, exacting process. Beginningwith the near-microscopic seeds (100,000 can fit in a thimble), they are planted in a hotbed right after Christmas and germinate in about a week.

The 5- to 6-inch seedlings are planted in the fields around March 20, with some water put on it, but not too much. “It’s really a dry-weather crop,”Martin said. “Too much water will kill it.”Prior to the planting itself, the fields are prepared and fertilized. About3,200 seedlings are planted per acre. Once, that job was done entirely byhand.

When the plants are about 3 feet tall the heart is pinched back to direct growth toward the bottom and produce larger leaves.

In late June harvesting begins, usually producing 1,200 pounds per acre, and the long leaves are hung in the barn where they turn from green to brown. That takes about two weeks.Then the leaves are stripped from their stalks, usually in the early- morning hours when they are more easily worked, then locked into reinforced barrels and placed under high pressure by July 4 to squeeze out the black moisture and intensify the flavor.

“This year was not a big crop, but the quality is damned good,” Martin said, smiling. “It dried perfect.”From time to time the barrels are opened and the tobacco turned to release more of the plant moisture. Then they are placed back underpressure. Shipping takes place the following March.It’s a year-round job keeping up with the perique crops, and Percy Martin is not a young man anymore. He still drives a tractor but can’t walk farwithout a cane and not too far with a cane.

His sons – Teddy, Percy, Leo, Ray and Brian – do most of the field work, and extra local people are hired to help strip the leaves for packing into the barrels.

What the future holds, however, is in the air.