Calling all pepper lovers…to Florida
By Mary Charlebois
Are you a pepper lover? Do spicy dishes and fiery condiments make you drool? If so, head to St Augustine Florida where you’ll find datils and a love affair with a secret pepper that has lasted centuries.
St Augustine’s secret pepper
The datil pepper is grown exclusively in the St Augustine Florida region. It’s between 100,000 and 300,000 on the Scoville Scale. That’s equal to a habanero, but datils lack the long habanero burn. The little yellow pepper’s burn is short, then sweet and fruity.
It is rare to find datils growing outside this part of America, but they’ve been a part of St Augustine agriculture and cuisine for hundreds of years.
Also called the Menorcan pepper and the ‘yellow lantern chili,’ datils arrived in St Augustine aboard Spanish ships, brought by Menorcan immigrants from Menorca, the island in the Mediterranean. Some say the 1600s, others believe the 1800s.
Either way, seeds of the pepper were planted, and they flourished. Today the yellow-orange peppers are ubiquitous in condiments and dishes in this region of the country. They thrive in kitchen gardens and on small commercial farms.
The food came with them
The immigrants brought their food with them from the Mediterranean. Today, St Augustine’s exceptional cuisine is distinctly Spanish but influenced by the French and English. Traditional and modern dishes contain datil peppers.
Recipes old and new
For generations, Menorcan families have passed-down recipes for their secret sauces, and heirloom dishes using datils. In homes and eateries, you’ll find classic Spanish dishes like Menorcan Clam Chowder, spicy beans, sausage, fish, shellfish, chicken, and pilaf.
Today datils can be found in shrimp and grits, chicken wings, fish sandwiches (my favorite), soups, stews, cocktails, bread, desserts, and even chocolate covered. Locally produced sauces, mustards, and spicy condiments are available in shops and on tables in eateries.
Where to try Datil Peppers
The datil is so beloved by St Augustinians, they hold two major events each year honoring the little hotshot. St Augustine is the place for pepper lovers in October and November when the datil is celebrated and elevated to royal status.
Datil Pepper Fall Festival is held in early October. The fest organizes a datil cookoff for restaurants, an amateur hot sauce competition, plus vendors offering their own unique sauces and condiments.
Fresh peppers and datil plants are for sale. Everything is local. The festival is in the Historic District, a gorgeous, walkable area with a European feel. website
The Great Chowder Debate takes place in early November. The title, Best Minorcan Chowder, is contended for by local chefs, many using family recipes. Attend the festival to taste as many as forty chowders from St Augustine’s top restaurants and vote for your favorite. Taste are $1 each. website
Datil Peppers In Restaurants
Most of the datil peppers sold in the St Augustine area go to local restaurants. The list is long in this food-centric town. It would be hard to find an eatery that doesn’t serve something containing datils.
Try a Spanish restaurant in the Historic District for a taste of history, or a restaurant serving the pride of St Augustine, fresh seafood. St Augustine eateries
In shops & markets
Pepper Palace on St. George Street in the Historic District has hot sauces of every description, but datil products are featured. Tasting is available at the counter. website
Farmer’s markets are open daily in St Augustine. In addition to fresh datils and datil condiments, you’ll find Florida’s abundance of fresh fruit and veg. Many markets offer prepared foods, entertainment, art, and crafts. website
Can’t make it to St Augustine right away? Try a sauce or condiment via mail order- Minorcan Datil Pepper Products
By air try Jacksonville (JAX) or Daytona Beach (DAB). By car, hop on A-1-A. It’s a bucket list drive. (See my GoNOMAD story, Northeast Florida: 100 Miles of US Route A1A)
DRIVING TIP – Driving A-1-A is delightful. Driving in St Augustine’s Historic District is challenging. When you arrive, park your car and forget it. Walk or take the Old Town Trolley, it’s the very best way to get around, see the city, or go to the beach. Multi-day passes are available. website
Let St Augustine share their short-and-sweet secret, the datil pepper. This lovely city is America’s oldest with a history that includes the Spanish, French, British, and pirates. It’s a water world overflowing with nature, history, sunshine, unforgettable food, and datil peppers.
Find where to eat, sleep, and play in St Augustine HERE