"It's cherished around the world and we almost lost it."
Businessman Mark Ryan says perique tobacco is a hidden treasure in St. James Parish. He bought the L.A. Poche perique tobacco factory in 2005 and was surprised how many neighbors had never heard of perique.
"I went down a couple of blocks to get some po-boys for my employees," recalls Ryan. "They had no idea what perique was. Same year, I was in Germany. I was in a meeting. And I mentioned perique. Six guys that didn't even speak English pointed at me and said, 'St. James Parish.'"
Perique tobacco is tobacco grown in St. James Parish, packed into whiskey barrels, placed under pressure, and then left to ferment in its own juices for 12-18 months. The result is a tobacco that, when blended with other types of tobacco, has a distinct flavor appreciated by smokers around the world, particularly pipe smokers.
It's not easy to process, which is why many farmers stopped growing it around the time Ryan bought the Poche factory.
"Nobody was growing. The farmers were underpaid. Labor was intensive. It just wasn't worth it for the reimbursement they were getting," remembers Ryan.
So, Ryan made perique worth the effort. He says he started paying farmers more for their crops and improved working conditions in the factory.
"Now, we've got young farmers growing. We've got a lot of interest. Perique is all over the place," he says.
Dudley Leblanc is a long-time farmer that was one of the first to provide Ryan with perique tobacco.
"Mark (Ryan) was looking for some tobacco," says Leblanc. "I just had about three barrels. The rest of them--nobody was growing it."
He credits Ryan with bringing the perique tobacco industry back to life.
"I already went to New Orleans down there. And they had a tobacco convention," says Leblanc. "I heard two guys talking. And he said, 'They got something about perique.' I said, 'Y'all heard of perique?' He said, 'Yeah, we just came to that convention and we heard of it.' I said, 'Well, I'm a grower.' He couldn't believe it!"