Nutria: The Other Red Meat

It's healthier than turkey, as exotic as alligator and, no, it doesn't taste like chicken.

"I would probably have to liken the taste to wild rabbit," said Robert Walker, of the Louisiana Seafood Exchange. "Once people try it, they realize it's not an offensive-tasting product, just because it's rodent-like in nature."

And if it has more than a passing resemblance to a rodent, that's because Louisiana's newest culinary treat is a rodent. It's commonly known as the nutria — or the swamp rat.

"I'd have to say it's the ugliest game animal there is," Walker conceded.

It's also possibly one of the most dangerous, at least in terms of environmental damage.

Nutria were introduced to the U.S. in 1937 by an entrepreneur hoping to raise them for their fur. But some escaped from captivity and began to thrive in the Louisiana wetlands. By 1955, there were an estimated 20 million wild nutria in the state, devouring the grasses that kept coastal marshes from becoming free water. They were kept in check only by a flourishing trade in their pelts.

But by the 1990s the fur market dried up, and the nutria multiplied. They've devoured so much of the vegetation ringing the shore that some 100,000 acres of wetlands are in danger of disappearing, according to Edmond Mouton, biologist and program manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries.

Now, whether you're walking by a New Orleans drainage ditch or traveling down a country road, it's not unusual to notice the three-foot long, 18-pound animals, Walker said.

"You find them all over, sitting on the side of the street eating grass," he said. "The first thought anyone who's never seen them before is always: 'Damn! Look at the size of that rat!'"

Nutria have been trapped and eaten in rural areas of Louisiana for decades. But for the average American, it's safe to say it was a leap of logic to envision a water rat on a dinner plate.

It took lauded continental chef Phillippe Parola to bring nutria to the table for the rest of the country. The man largely responsible for making alligator an acceptable treat and a former commandeur des Cordons Bleus in Paris, Parola is a spokesman for the Wildlife & Fisheries Bureau and Louisiana's unofficial "ambassador of cuisine." After a test trial in his own kitchen, Parola declared the nutria tasty and persuaded 10 top Louisiana restaurants to put it on the menu.

"Louisiana is known for its exotic food," he said. "We put crawfish on the table, we put alligator meat on the table, turtle meat. Consumers are looking for new stuff, something out of the ordinary. And this is definitely out of the ordinary."

By making nutria popular as haute cuisine under its French name, ragondin, Parola hopes to create a market for the rodent as food, encouraging trappers to begin bagging the beady-eyed varmints.

The state has already declared nutria a game animal, and the meat, which goes for just 50 cents per pound, is processed at a state-contracted facility and inspected and graded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Bills to create public nutria hunting seasons are flying through the legislature faster than shot from a 12-gauge.

And, as nutria's proponents repeatedly note, the meat is nutritious. It has more protein and far less fat and cholesterol than just about any other meat, including turkey and chicken.

Parola estimates it will take about seven years for nutria meat to catch on, slightly longer than it did for reptile meat. He is nonetheless confident it will soon be classified as "a true exotic meat from Louisiana."

"It's going to be a little harder than alligator because psychologically it's a rat, so people have a tendency to go, 'Oh my God!'" he said.

And once the U.S. is ready to dig into the latest delicacy, Parola, a true Frenchman, has a couple tips to offer.

"I recommend a good Merlot with nutria," he said. "A bottle of Chardonnay or Riesling will go pretty good with a nutria cassoulet."