Agri Leader

Datil peppers add spicy side to St. Augustine history and cuisine

If you like your food with a side of heat and history, then you’ll want to try Datil peppers.

It’s said that Datil peppers were brought to Florida about 200 years ago by settlers from the island of Minorca in Spain. Since then, Minorcan descendants have continued to use Datils to spice up their dishes and add flair to food around St. Augustine.

St. Augustine is our nation’s oldest city, and it’s seen its share of violent history involving Europeans, native Americans and even pirates. It seems only fitting that St. Augustine would be the U.S. home to this heat-producing pepper.

During a visit earlier this month to St. Augustine, I saw signs of Datils (pronounced similarly to cattle) in hot sauce shops, spice shops that carry Datil pepper powder, and at restaurants. One example was at the Sunset Grille in St. Augustine Beach, which has Sunset Datil pepper wings and Datil shrimp and bacon stuffed oysters among its appetizer selections.

St. Augustine residents also hold a Datil Pepper Festival every October.

Now here’s the thing. Datil peppers are fiery. The heat index for peppers is measured with something called Scoville units and can range from 0 to 2 million. Jalapeño peppers are 3,000 to 5,000 Scoville units. Compare that to Datils, which are a whopping 100,000 to 300,000 Scoville units. In one word: Caliente!

So how do they taste? Chili Pepper Madness founder Mike Hultquist said they have the heat of a habanero or Scotch bonnet but taste a little bit sweeter and even fruitier. Hulvquist lives in Lake in the Hills, Ill., but vacations in Florida and bought some Datil plants to grow at home. “Mine are getting quite large now and productive,” he said.

“In the St. Augustine area, Datils have a flavor that can only be duplicated here,” said Byron Bates, owner of Datil Dew Pepper Products. He’s known people who’ve bought Datil plants and grown them successfully in northwest Florida and Alabama, but he thinks the Datils from other areas have a different flavor. “St. Augustine and the 60- to 80-mile radius around it has the growing conditions and weather to give Datils a succinct flavor,” Bates said.

I tried a one-inch Datil from the plant I bought. The heat took a second or two to hit me, and it was tolerable. Perhaps there was a little less heat because it wasn’t yet fully grown. Mature Datils are about three inches and turn yellow-orange. Plus, I tried Datil pepper jelly on crackers a few minutes before. That afternoon snack cleared my sinuses (one benefit of eating spicy foods) and had more heat. Since heat and spice are all relative, I should let you know that my once heat-naïve tongue can now tolerate items like jalapeños or chipotles with only a little effort. I’m becoming a hot pepper convert slowly but surely.

As I mentioned earlier, Datils are used in all kinds of hot sauces and jellies or jams sold around St. Augustine. Bread and butter pickles made from Datil peppers comprise 25 percent to 30 percent of Bates’s sales. Datils are also used in sausage and meat dishes, eggs, and shrimp dishes made famous by the Minorcans.

One way to bring down Datil’s heat is to add it to eggs or other food items. By adding just a little, you can control the heat, Bates said.

If you want to buy a Datil plant while you’re in St. Augustine, try local nurseries or ask at local farms, which may grow them alongside their other offerings. I found my plant at a local nursery and was told that Datils love heat and water.

If you’re curious now to try Datils but can’t make it to St. Augustine, search online for food specialty vendors who might carry Datil products near you. I first spotted Datil pepper jelly at Davidson of Dundee in Dundee.