The Ark of Taste, like Noah’s Ark of old, is a means to preserve from extinction with the hope that each species will thrive again. But this time it’s saving more than giraffes, lions and elephants.
The Ark of Taste is Slow Food USA’s effort to champion distinctive, regional foods. Of the eight-hundred-plus foods recognized worldwide, one is grown exclusively on the First Coast. St. Augustine’s datil pepper is regional, flavorful and in danger of disappearing.
Joe Hill grows datils, and says they can be finicky plants. “I pick the first week of July. Last year, I picked 35 five gallon buckets. I’ll be lucky if I get that all season this year.”
But, just like generations before him, Hill is harvesting, drying, bottling and making plans for next year. “No year is the same as the last,” he says.
All the locals agree, that the datil pepper has been a staple in St. Augustine since the Minorcans brought it here in the late 1700s. This piquant pepper’s origin before St. Augustine is as contested as whose hot sauce is the best in town and how to grow the hottest peppers.
“As we were growing up, our Minorcan heritage and datils weren’t a big part of our lives like now,” Sherry Stoppelbein of Hot Shot Bakery says. Everyone had a plant, but no one gave them much thought beyond how to develop the most heat. “I heard as a child that it’s best to fertilize them with rabbit pellets—you get the most heat out of them that way.” Stoppelbein reminisces. “I also heard you don’t pick ‘em yellow [after further ripening], because they lose their heat. But that’s just not true. Some things we just accepted without asking questions back then.”
Folklore surrounding the pepper’s heat was unquestioned for decades. The origin of the peppers was similarly unexplored. It has long been storied that datils were carried over from the Mediterranean Islands, where the Minorcans emigrated from, but this part of the pepper’s history is a bit muddled. Some now purport that datils were raised by Native Americans long before the Minorcans arrived. Still others claim that they came from Peru, and the Minorcans picked the peppers up in Cuba on the voyage to the New World. University of Florida researchers currently think these, like other peppers in the capsicum family, originated in Brazil. But until DNA testing brings closure to the debate, there is one thing everyone agrees on: datils’ popularity has spread beyond St. Augustine and the First Coast.
While a few decades ago datil peppers were utilized only by locals, demand has increased as popular sauces are sold outside the area. Stoppelbein sells Datil B Good sauces from her restaurant, Hot Shot Bakery. “It used to be just regional, but because of people like Chris and myself, we’ve expanded our horizon so much. We ship internationally now!”
She’s referring to Chris Way, Datil King. He developed Dat’l Do It for his restaurant, Barnacle Bills, and was the first to bottle a datil hot sauce commercially. “I believe he put datils on the map,” Stoppelbein says.
Now, many locals have turned family recipes into bottled sauces.
“You can’t go four houses in my neighborhood without finding someone making something with datils,” Hill says. On his block alone, neighbors churn out Dat’s Nice, Datil Q and Hurricane Hot Sauce. “Anybody that’s been here a while has a buddy that’s Minorcan,” he says. “They make datil pretty much everything you can imagine—datil cornbread, datil chowder, datil pepper jelly, datil mustard, datil fudge!”
This puts pepper producers like Hill’s Bite Me Farms in high demand. Stoppelbein used to grow her own datils for her sauces, totalling 300 cases and 500 commercial gallons per year. “I’ve never run out. Not yet. I was down to 2 freezer bags once. This year, all my plants died. Joe saved me.”
With datils only being cultivated in this area, there is a higher chance of the crops being destroyed via the pepper weevil or weather problems. Like most farmers, Hill’s biggest challenge is Mother Nature. “If it’s a wet summer, we have a lot of fungus to fight. If it’s dry, I can always add water…I can’t take it away,” he says.
Hill projects that he should produce between 12,000 and 14,000 pounds of peppers this year. Next year, he plans to increase the number of plants he’s raising by 1,200 because interest in the datil pepper continues to rise.
St. Augustine hosts The Datil Pepper Festival every fall where professional chefs and home cooks compete for prizes and accolades. The Conch House hosts The Great Chowder Debate to decide which restaurant’s Minorcan Chowder reigns as “best” for the year. Hot Shot Bakery hosts a smaller scale cooking contest annually as well as a chocolate-dipped-datil eating contest. Datil sauces are on Publix’ shelves in three states and e-commerce sites ship St. Augustine’s darling sauce internationally. Hill’s Bite Me Farms also sells peppers to bottling plants in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
If awareness is enough to save a plant from extinction, the datil is safe.
Regional varieties of peppers, tomatoes, meats and grains across the South are diverse and delicious. Rediscover an heirloom flavor and see what masterpiece you can create!