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Bite into St. Augustine, Florida’s favorite pepper
Story and photos by Renee Sklarew
One ingredient with mysterious origins pops up in dishes across St. Augustine, Florida.
In the early 1500s, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon sailed his Spanish galleon through choppy coastal waters in search of the legendary Fountain of Youth. Ponce de Leon was the first documented European to explore Florida’s northeast coast. In 1513 he traveled to a territory inhabited by Seminole Indians. After the Spanish settled what is now the city of St. Augustine, the oldest continuously-inhabited city of European origin in the United States, along came the French, English and free Africans. During that migration, at least one ship contained what has become St. Augustine’s favorite pepper: the datil.
Which ship and where it originated is the foodie puzzle.
This small orange pepper’s heritage is commonly attributed to the Spanish island of Minorca. However, many historians believe these peppers were brought to Florida from Africa during the slave trade, since they resemble African fatalii peppers. Authors of The Complete Chili Pepper Book, Paul W. Bosland and Dave DeWitt, theorize the datil came from Chile.
The people of St. Augustine are not too worried about the datil pepper’s origins. Instead, they concentrate on the many different ways to use these kicky peppers. Over more than a century the datil has become a centerpiece of northern Florida coastal cooking. There’s even an annual Datil Pepper Festival Cookoff held in St. Augustine the first weekend in October every year.
In Datil Peppers: Heat with a History author Richard Villadoniga notes datil’s most popular use is in St. Augustine’s beloved Minorcan chowder. Though originally made with tortoise, today the rich red broth contains clams, pork, tomatoes, potatoes and herbs. To prepare Minorcan chowder without datil peppers the recommended substitute is habaneros, which gives you an idea of datil’s potency.
While visiting the enchanting city of St. Augustine, I encountered datil peppers during my first meal. O’Steen’s is an iconic restaurant beloved by St. Augustine diners for more than 50 years. The seafood shack is located on A1A, across the Bridge of Lions, from historic downtown St. Augustine. Try to go at off hours, when the line doesn’t stretch into the parking lot, and be forewarned: O’Steen’s only accepts cash.
The datil peppers in O’Steens Minorcan chowder give it a glowing scarlet hue and a tangy, sweet heat. You can also shake out O’Steen’s signature datil pepper sauce onto its famous shrimp, fried fish or red beans and rice.
My first taste of datil peppers piqued my interest, so I sought out more. At Catch 27 I found datil peppers in pimento cheese fondue as well as a chunkier version of Minorcan clam chowder. Catch 27 has a lovely outdoor garden and focuses its small menu on seasonal ingredients, fresh produce and seafood caught in Florida waters like black drum and trigger fish. The excellent cooking so impressed that my husband and I ate there twice during our trip (which we never do).
We drove along the seashore and discovered Aunt Kate’s, one of St. Augustine’s oldest restaurants—a version of this restaurant has served St. Augustine for more than 100 years! Seated on a floating dock, with panoramic views of the Tolomoto River, I tried a condiment called Minorcan datil pepper vinegar with my fish tacos and Aunt Kate’s Menorcan chowder, which won second place in the 2017 Great Chowder Debate. Though I didn’t and still don’t understand the difference between Minorcan and Menorcan, I was hooked.
“Where can I find a bottle of this?” I asked the server at Aunt Kate’s. She said that the sauces are sold, but I could also find any in shops in downtown St. Augustine. Now, I was on a mission.
Datil peppers turned up in surprising places. At A1A Ale Works Restaurant & Taproom, near the Cathedral Basilica St. Augustine, you can order chicken wings with homemade datil pepper sauce. Hot Shots Bakery serves an open-faced datil pizza. We loved dining at The Floridian featuring “down-home” southern comfort foods using locally-sourced products. Datil peppers are the primary flavor behind the “not your mamma’s meatloaf sandwich” and tacos de verano with datil jam.
Though I adored datil peppers in savory dishes, my favorite bites popped up in sweet treats. Don’t miss the datil pepper dark chocolate truffles at Claude’s Chocolate or the datil-raspberry popsicles at Hyppo Gourmet Ice Pops. Both are worth the calories any day.
Ponce de Leon searched for the Fountain of Youth—yes, it’s a place you can actually visit. That sparkling spring is just one secret behind St. Augustine’s enduring appeal. The spicy datil peppers are another.
St. Augustine welcomes visitors with open arms, and it’s easy to navigate this walkable city with its many historic sites. Some highlights include the Lightner Museum and most impressive of all, Flagler College’s campus. Flagler was built to be the luxurious Ponce de Leon Hotel in 1885 by railroad magnate Henry Flagler. Castillo de San Marcos Monument is a national park with a captivating story.
Explore St. Augustine’s vibrant food scene with the Original Savory Faire Food Tour led by Edward Koczero, an adjunct professor at Flagler College. All of the guides who lead the St. Augustine city walks have intimate knowledge of the city’s cultural and culinary history. This $59 tour includes stops at six restaurants/venues and Woolworth’s soda shop counter where four teens protested for Civil Rights in the summer 1963.