Datil Peppers: Florida's Hot Treasure

By: Carlos Harrison

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How they got here, nobody knows. But centuries of Minorcans living in St. Augustine claim datil peppers as their birthright.

Around St. Augustine, when people talk about feeling the Florida heat, they don't necessarily mean the sun. They could be talking about a unique, sweet warmth transported by a kind of pepper that is an inseparable part of the city’s history and culture.

Datil peppers are as hot as habaneros -- and fruity, like Scotch bonnets -- and used to spice up everything from jellies and jams to barbecue sauce and salsa. Locals spread them on everything from gator tail to Thanksgiving turkey, or dab them on a cracker with cream cheese first thing in the morning.

According to lore, indentured servants from Minorca, Spain, brought the first datils to America’s oldest city more than two centuries ago. (Read more about their story here.)

Where they got the peppers remains a mystery. None grow on their native island in the Mediterranean Sea, or in Spain. Some suspect birds carried the original Capsicum chinense seeds from their birthplace in the area between modern Brazil and Bolivia to the islands of the Caribbean. The Minorcans may have picked them up on a stopover in the West Indies during their westward journey.
         
No one really knows.

“I don’t believe the Minorcans brought them with them, but the Minorcans took to them,” says Mike Usina, a datil grower who traces his roots -- if not, perhaps, those of his peppers – to the first of the Catalan-speaking islanders to set foot in Florida. “The seeds have been passed down, best as I can tell, for nearly 300 years.”

However they got here, the Minorcans put their stamp on the peppers, and vice versa. The name "datil” comes from the Catalan word for “date,” like the fruit cultivated in the Middle East, and the descendants of those early Minorcan settlers still grow them here. Chest- to head-high bushes sprouting in five-gallon buckets (the easier to slip indoors when the temperature dips too low) are commonplace in backyards in and around St. Augustine.

For many, it’s an unofficial badge of honor that translates to: “a Minorcan lives here.”

“The old Minorcans protected the seed. They wouldn’t share them with anybody,” Usina says. That may be where the myth that they won’t grow anywhere else started, as a way to discourage others from trying.

“When I was growing up, we were told datil peppers won’t grow in any soil but St. Augustine’s,” he said. But he discovered the old-timers’ tale was really just make-believe when his brother moved to St. Louis and got them growing in the Missouri red clay.

Still, you won’t find many outside of the vicinity, possibly because Florida is one of the few places peppers grow as perennials and get the copious amounts of water they need.

The bright yellow-orange datils are pint-sized, but pack a punch. They’re half the size of cayennes and poblanos, thinner than habaneros or Scotch bonnets. But biter beware: a little datil will do.

These babies register from 100,000 to 300,000 on the Scoville spicy heat scale. Jalepeños, by comparison, rank between 3,000 and 8,500.

Datils are too hot to handle straight up. Biting into one is a gasping, searing experience that burns the tongue and brings tears to the eyes. But they have a distinctive sweetness that’s different from the tropical tendencies of habaneros or the smoky snap of Scotch bonnets, and nearly every family has its own recipe for jellies and sauces and mustards that adds the tang without the torture.

They use datils in catsup and relish, on eggs and collard greens, or in any of the sausage, shrimp or chicken variations of the Minorcan favorite, pilau (pronounced “PER-loo” around here).

“If it’s Minorcan, it will have datil pepper in it.” says Carol Lopez Bradshaw, whose ancestors arrived with the first St. Augustine Minorcans. “Everybody makes theirs a little different and everybody thinks theirs is the best.”

You can also find the jellies and sauces in gift shops and restaurants in the area, or buy them online. They go by names like “Snakebite,” “Devil Drops,” and “Hurricane Hot Sauce.”

“It’s the most popular thing in all St. Augustine,” says Chanel St. Clair, who sells nothing but hot foodstuffs at her appropriately named shop, Hot Stuff Mon, in St. Augustine’s Old Town district. “People come from all over for it.”

The makers include Minorcans and non- who’ve doctored traditional classics into an ever-growing assortment of flavorful concoctions in various shades of intensity, from subtle to sizzling.

Marcia McQuaig married into the Minorcan tradition. She started making datil sauce as Christmas gifts one year. Popular demand turned it into a business. Now her line of Minorcan Datil Pepper Products includes mustards and relish, vinegar and spice. Her most recent addition, a garlic-datil mayo.

“It’s not so much about sending them to another planet with heat,” she says. “It infuses the recipe. It’s an enhancement. It takes it to the next level, to where you get some heat, but it’s just the datil, it’s so unique. It slowly comes up on you.”

Or, as St. Clair puts it: “You can’t get a better pepper.”

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