If you’re outside of St. John’s County in Florida, you’ve likely never heard of the Datil Pepper. If you’re a lover of hot sauce though, we want the opportunity to change that! In order for you to fully appreciate the little yellow lanterns, you’ll need to know their unique history.
St. Augustine in Florida is the nation’s oldest city. Originally inhabited by the Timucuan Indian and colonized by the Spanish in 1565, the city will celebrate its 455th birthday in 2020. Rich in history with much of the original architecture still standing, the historical landmarks and artifacts serve as a gateway to the city's storied past.
St. Augustine is home to many cultures, but none with the longevity of the Minorcans. Minorca is an island off Spain that was colonized by the British in the late 1700s. It was in 1768 that Andrew Turnbull organized the largest attempt at British colonization by founding New Smyrna, Florida.
Minorcans, Greeks and Italians were recruited to work for land by the British colony. The conditions were not as promised for everyone, as the Minorcans were treated as indentured servants. After about 7 years of servitude, the Mincorans went 70 miles north where they settled in St. Augustine, Florida.
The flavor of the Datil Pepper and Minorcan cuisine
When researching the history and taste of the datil pepper, I got speaking to Mike O’Steen of Minorcan Mike’s Datil Pepper Company. Mike shared that his ancestors were some of the people who made the journey from New Smyrna to St. Augustine and in their trek, the Mincoran people actually brought the datil pepper with them.
Mike remembers his grandfather introducing him to Datil peppers at an early age; growing and picking them, and using his grandfather’s Datil pepper sauce and vinegar.
Datil pepper lovers usually start describing the pepper as “Sweeeet”, but Minorcan Mike goes on to explain, “With Datil pepper, you get the flavor first. [There’s the] unique, sweet flavor of the Datil pepper, and then a nice heat comes after.”
The Datil Pepper comes in at around 100k SKU – 350k SHU and ranks slightly lower than habaneros on the Scoville Heat Unit Scale. Mike mentions that if you slice up a Datil pepper in some chili or Minorcan chowder you will get the heat, but it’s a sweet, distinct flavor and that adds to other flavors in a meal.
From backyard chefs to the mom-and-pop diners, many St. Augustine residents concoct, share and sell their Datil pepper recipes to anyone with a venturous palate. The Datil pepper has become quite versatile to cuisine, adding a sweet, hot and spicy tang to whatever it is used to flavor.
With a visit to the city between spring and fall, you’ll find merchants are set up at farmer's markets or at one of the numerous annual fairs. In St. Augustine you’ll find Datil sauces and jellies, spices and pickles, baked beans, chowders, chutneys, salsas, peanut, vinegar and mustard.
Some entrepreneurs in the area have worked long and hard to try to make it into the culinary big leagues. One such business owner is Joe Stewart of Dat’s Nice Hot Sauce. He has invested many years after being introduced to the Datil pepper at a young age.
Growing Datil Peppers
Most people in other parts of the world have never even heard of the Datil pepper, yet it has been a part of the St. Augustine cuisine since the 1700s. As a mainstay, they are almost entirely grown in St. Augustine and botanists say the Datil is indigenous to the St. Augustine climate.
Minorcan Mike shares that Datil peppers usually start becoming ripe in May and will grow through the summer, yielding new peppers within 30 days or so. They typically stop producing after the weather gets colder in October. Lots of growers will cut back and re-grow the same pepper plants. The cutbacks don’t yield as many peppers the following year, but the plants can be re-grown for the next 3-4 years.
It sounds like 2020 is off to an early harvest season in St. Augustine as one of Mike’s growers mentioned that they already have 100 plants with buds on them.
A lot of people who grow Datil peppers plant them in buckets and use bark mulch, watering them 2-3 times per day. The peppers grow green to golden yellow-orange and usually end up growing up to around two to three inches long when mature.
The Business of Peppers in St. Augustine, Florida
The little Datil pepper is beginning to become better known as food shop owners and area restaurants serve the plant-made delicacies. Many St. Augustine hot sauce companies like Minorcan Mike's, Dat's Nice and Old St. Augustine Gourmet have shared their story on Craft Hot Sauce. As vacationers and tourists from other parts of the country and the world visit St. Augustine, they taste this savory pepper. Many local growers hope it’s secret will spread. Hot sauce enthusiasts who visit the area should do everything to sample Datil pepper sauces – we’re absolutely sure you won’t be disappointed.