By Suzanne Hall; Photos by Suzanne Hall except where indicated
Byron’s Barbecue Beans
Paul’s Devilish Roasted Chicken
St. Augustine has a hot little secret–the Datil pepper. No one there talks much about the peppers. But if you get a chance to peek into the backyards of some of the city’s oldest families, you’ll see them growing. And, when you dine in one of St. Augustine’s many seafood restaurants, you’re apt to find bottles of datil pepper sauce on most of the tables.
The residents of this north Florida town have the best of both worlds–miles of pristine beaches and centuries of history. In1516, Ponce de Leon claimed Florida for Spain and supposedly discovered the Fountain of Youth in what is now St. Augustine. The city was founded in 1565, making it the oldest continually occupied European settlement in the U.S. "We were into urban renewal when the Pilgrims were landing in Plymouth," residents say with a laugh.
With streets named Cordova, Sevilla, and Castillo and buildings topped by red tile roofs, the city’s Spanish heritage is unmistakable. That’s not surprising, since St. Augustine pledged its allegiance to the Spanish flag longer than it has flown the Stars and Stripes. And while the American Colonies were fighting for their independence, a group of Spanish settlers brought the datil pepper to St. Augustine.
How exactly it got there is a combination of fact and fiction. One thing is certain, when a group of indentured workers originally from the island of Minorca arrived in St. Augustine in 1777 from an abandoned settlement in New Smyrna, Florida, they brought the pepper with them. Some say they carried the seeds all the way from Spain. Experts believe that’s unlikely and suspect that the Minorcans probably discovered this little green or yellow (when fully ripe) pepper during a stop over in Cuba. A Caribbean connection is likely for two reasons: the proximity to Florida and the fact that datils are a variety of the species Capsicum chinense, the same species as other Caribbean chiles such as the habanero and Scotch bonnets. Datil means "date" in Spanish, but the reason for that particular name is lost in obscurity, especially considering the fact that the pod is not shaped like a date. It is possible that the aroma of the freshly cut pod resembles that of a date.
Wherever they found them, the Minorcans loved them and began growing them to add to their sauces, pilaus and other dishes. They even used a datil or two in the cheese pastries (called fromajardis) they made at Easter.
Growing datil peppers still is something of a backyard enterprise. Even commercial growers tend to be so small that the Florida Department of Agriculture has no statistics on them. It doesn’t take many datil peppers to make a sauce, though. Randy Haire, a local grower, raises 480 plants which produce about 2,000 pounds of peppers a year. He and other small growers provide more than enough peppers to make the many datil pepper sauces, mustards, relishes and other condiments found in St. Augustine.
Many little shops in the city as well as some grocery stores offer a selection of datil pepper products. Mara’s Hotter Side in Heritage Walk Mall has quite a few products and several other shops nearby market datil pepper products in their "Made in St. Augustine" displays. The best place for datil pepper products, though, is Hot Stuff Mon. Chanel and Robert St. Clair run this mecca for fiery foods lovers. They stock a couple dozen St. Augustine datil pepper products made by various local companies. "Many tourists come looking for them specifically," Chanel says. And what they choose depends on whether they are male or female. "Men go for the heat. Women go for the taste. That’s what so good about datil peppers," she adds. "They have the heat, but they also have a lot of flavor."
Various Datil Products and
Dried Pods (Credit: S. Parks Hall)
While datil peppers represent only a small blip on Florida’s agricultural picture, entrepreneurs like Chris Way, owner of St. Augustine’s three Barnacle Bill’s restaurants, have turned them into a cash crop. When Way opened his first Barnacle Bills in 1981, he recognized that the hot sauce Minorcans made was a natural complement to seafood. He started making his own Dat’l Do-It sauce in the restaurant kitchen. His customers loved it and within a year or two he began selling it to them. "The datil pepper business really was a spin off of the restaurant," he says. And what spin off it was. Today, Way makes nine datil pepper products, including hot sauce, barbecue sauce, vinegar, mustard, relish, Datil Dust, a powdered seasoning, and Devil Drops, a liquid concoction of datil peppers, mango, passion fruit and lime juice. His products have been in grocery stores for 15 years. In recent years, Way has expanded his business to include other products and gift packs which are sold nationally in Wal-Mart, Target and other chains. "Dat’l Do-It really is a gift set company now," he explains. "But the datil pepper products are still the cornerstone."
At first, Way grew his own peppers. Now he concentrates on making and marketing the products and leaves the growing to others. He still makes all his sauce, though, in the Barnacle Bill’s kitchen. And, he uses the sauces and datil pods widely on the menu. Smokin’ Smokin’ Fish Dip, a popular appetizer, is made with smoked fish, Datil Dust, and Dat’l Do-It Hot sauce. The sauce also is used to marinate chicken wings and in a dip for gator tail. He also seasons his clam chowder with datil peppers.
Wanda and Byron (Center) Bates, owners of
Datil Dew with Jim Brogden, instructor of
horticulture at First Coast Technical Institute
in one of the institutes greenhouses.
Byron Bates of Datil Dew Pepper Products credits Way with putting datil pepper products on the culinary map."He paved the way for others to get into the business," he says. In the early 1990s, Bates and his wife Wanda decided to get into the hot sauce business. "The owner of Outback Crab Shack in St. Augustine asked us to develop some datil pepper sauces without preservatives that could sit out on the tables and not be affected by Florida’s heat," he explains. They came up with Outback Red, a medium-hot datil pepper sauce. Today, they make six different datil sauces, including Six Mile Gold, a mustard sauce that’s the number one selling mustard at Hot Stuff Mon. "We ship the sauce to hunting camps in Alaska," he says. "They use it to marinate game." Raz L’Datil is another popular product. "With its raspberry flavor, it’s great combined with equal parts of oil and vinegar as a dressing for fruit or salad." Datil Pepper Bread and Butter Pickles represents about 23% of their sales. Three dry seasonings, including Rub Ur’ Clucker, round out their product line. New products, including a chow chow, probably are on the way. All of their products are totally vegan and can be stored at room temperature.
The Bates’ have about 1,200 cases of products each year produced for them locally from their recipes. They grow peppers themselves and purchase others from Randy Haire. Jim Brogden, horticulture instructor at First Coast Technical Institute in St. Augustine, also grows some peppers for them. "St. Augustine has the right climate for the outside growth of datil peppers. But if keep them inside you can grow them anywhere. And," he adds, "once you’ve tasted them, you’re hooked. They’re addictive."
The season is over and one lone datil pepper
grows in the First Coast Technical Institute's greenhouse.
The Bates also have a piece of the Wal-Mart hot sauce action. Their products are in five local stores. They also are mainstays at Outback Crab Shack, where owner Margaret Tuttle serves them in a basket along with her broiled, boiled, and fried seafood specialties.
At Schooner’s Seafood House in St. Augustine, Minorcan Datil Pepper Products are on the tables and in the kitchen. "Our customers use the hot sauce like they’d use ketchup," says Charles Butcher, who owns the restaurant with his wife Judith. That’s good news for Marcia McQuaig, who began making the sauce as a gift for friends and family about ten years ago. Although she’s no big fan of burn your tongue dishes, she found that the sweet-hot taste of the datil peppers her husband grew in the backyard had lots of palate-pleasing possibilities. One recipe led to another and soon she had a group of products and the makings of a business.
Minorcan Datil Pepper Hot Sauce is her best seller. She also makes an extra hot sauce (which won a Scovie award in 1999), and Minorcan pepper marinade, mustard, mint jelly, dry spice, and vinegar. For those what want to start from scratch, she sells dried datil peppers and datil pepper seeds. One of her newest products, Minorcan Cran-Datil Jam, is available only from September through December. "I had a mint jelly, but I wanted something red for the holidays," she explains. "I saw it as a quick hors d’oeuvre to put over cream cheese. But it’s also good as a condiment for turkey and ham or on ice cream."
"Datil peppers go with everything," Butcher claims. He uses McQuaig’ mint jelly on meats and as a marinade. Her mustard goes into the sauce for fried alligator tail and is combined with the hot sauce to enhance his chicken wings. He adds Minorcan Datil Pepper Vinegar to the cooking liquid for greens, cabbage and other vegetables.
McQuaig and her husband still grow some of the peppers for the 1,000 cases of products she produces each year. Last year, they also purchased 420 pounds of peppers from another local grower. Although she uses two area bottlers to produce her products now, the creation and development of new products still take place in her own kitchen. "There’s nothing like the datil pepper to cook with," she says. "I like to formulate product recipes to go with food and food to go with my products. I’ve always got something new in the pipeline."
St. Augustine’s datil pepper products developed by Way, Bates, McQuaig and others can be used in any recipe calling for hot sauce or other pepper-based condiments. But here are some recipes developed especially for datil peppers.
Charlie Butcher serves this sauce with fried alligator tail at Schooner’s Seafood House.3 1/3 cups (18 ounces) brown sugar
1 /2 cups (12 tablespoons) Minorcan Datil Mustard
1 1 /2 cups (12 ounces) white vinegar
1 1 /2 cups (12 ounces) honey
3/4 cup (6 ounces) lemon juice
1 1 /2 cups (12 ounces) apricot jelly
In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix well. Store in the refrigerator in glass jars.
Yield: About 10 cups
Heat Scale: Medium
Marcia McQuaig says this recipe has been "a local favorite here in St. Augustine for decades. It’s best made in a good heavy pot."2 pounds smoked sausage
1 /2 cups chopped onion
1 /2 cups chopped green bell pepper
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 (15 -16-ounce) can stewed tomatoes
1 tomato can of water
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 datil peppers, seeds and stems removed, chopped (or more to taste)
3 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups rice4 cups waterIn a large skillet, fry the sausage, onions, bell pepper, and garlic till they are brown. Add the tomatoes and the one can of water. Bring the mixture to a boil. Add the thyme, bay leaves, datil pepper, and salt and pepper. Cook down over medium heat for 20 to 25 minutes. Add the rice and the 4 cups of water and bring to a boil. Put a tight lid on the pot and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring once about half way through.
Yield: 4 servingsHeat Scale: Mild
Byron’s Barbecue Beans
Byron Bates thinks big, really big when he makes these beans. The recipe can be cut down to fit your needs. Note: To plump raisins, place them in a saucepan covered with water or fruit juice. Bring mixture to a boil, reduce heat and cook for a couple of minutes or until raisins are soft and plump.
1 #10 can pinto beans, drained and well rinsed
1 pound golden raisins, plumped
3 cups chopped onion
2 cups diced cooking apples (Granny Smith, Rome, Spy, etc.)
3/4 cup cane sugar syrup
1 1/2 cups Datil Dew Outback Red Datil Pepper Sauce
1 cup Datil Dew 6 Mile Gold Datil Pepper sauce
1/4 cup Datil Dew Burgundy Mustard
1/2 pound bacon cut into 1-inch squares
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Combine the drained and rinsed beans, raisins, onions, apples, syrup, pepper sauces and mustard in a very large bowl. Mix all the ingredients together well. Divide the mixture equally among three 9-inch by 12-inch baking pans.
Arrange cut bacon evenly over the beans in each of the pans. Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 50 minutes or until bacon is cooked.
Yield: About 25 servings
Heat Scale: Medium Hot
If you can’t find this brand of mustard, use any mustard with chile peppers in it.
Peel the eggs and split them in half lengthwise. Scoop out the yolks and combine them in a bowl with the mustard, mayonnaise, and salt and pepper. Mix until smooth. Spoon the mixture into the egg halves or place the mixture into a quart-sized plastic bag. Clip off one corner of the bag and pipe the mixture into the eggs.
Yield: 12 eggs
Heat Scale: Medium
This taco recipe from Chris Way has a nice bite.
2 pounds ground beef
2 tablespoons taco seasoning mix
1/4 cup Dat’l Do-It Hot Sauce
2 tablespoons Devil Drops
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup Hellish Relish
12 taco shells
4 ounces shredded Cheddar cheese
1 (4-ounce) can diced jalapeño peppers
1 (2-ounce) can chopped black olives
12 taco shells
Combine the ground beef and taco seasoning in a skillet. Cook until beef is browned and no longer pink. Drain the fat from the pan and add the hot sauce and Devil Drops.
In a small mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese and the Hellish Relish; mix well.
Divide the ground beef mixture equally among the 12 taco shells. Spread the cream cheese mixture over the beef. Sprinkle with the Cheddar cheese, jalapeños and olives.
Yield: 12 tacos
Heat Scale: Medium
Paul’s Devilish Roasted Chicken
The roast chicken recipe with pizzazz comes from Chris Way. It’s practically a meal in one.
1/4 cup Devil Drops
Juice of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lime
Juice of 1 orange
1 teaspoons salt
5 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 whole chicken (about 4 pounds)
4 carrots, cut into large chunks
1 large yellow onion, cut into large chunks
2 baking potatoes, cut into large chunks
Freshly ground black pepper
Combine the hot sauce, the juices and the salt. With a small sharp knife, make little slits all over the chicken and slide the garlic slices into the slits. Put any remaining garlic in the chicken cavity. Pour Devil Drops and juice mixture over the chicken, adding some to the cavity. Let stand, basting frequently for one hour. Or, place the chicken in a basting bag and turn frequently.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the chicken in a large baking dish. Add the carrots, onion and potatoes. Grind black pepper over the chicken and the vegetables.
Bake for 45 minutes, turning the vegetables and basting the chicken occasionally. Lower heat to 325 degrees and cook for another 45 minutes or until the chicken and vegetables are cooked through.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Heat Scale: Mild
Datil Does It
Perk up your next meal or snack with these tips from the makers of datil pepper products.
Oven roast or grill chicken pieces until done. Brush on both sides with Datil Dew’s Six Mile Gold, Raz L Datil or Outback Red sauce. Grill over medium heat for five minutes per side.
Make a Dat’l Do-it Bloody Mary by adding 1 ounce of vodka and four or five drops of Devil Drops to your favorite bloody Mary mix.
Add Minorcan Hot Datil Spice to taste to ground beef to make a datil hamburger.
Pour a generous amount of any Datil Dew It sauce into a hot skillet. Cook the sauce until it reduces slightly. Then toss in a handful of fresh shrimp or boiled chicken wings and toss until most of the moisture is gone. Garnish with coconut or Rub Ur’ Clucker.
St. Augustine is a great place to visit and the place to try a wide variety of datil pepper products. If you can’t make the trip, you can order from these suppliers.
Datil Dew Pepper Products: 904-284-8144, www.pepperproducts.com
Datil Dippin' Hot Sauce: www.datild.augustine.com
Dat’l Do-it: 800-468-3285, www.datldoit.com
Hot Stuff Mon: 866-544-4944, www.charlottestcorp.com
Minorcan Datil Pepper Products: 877-432-8457, www.minorcandatil.com
Bill Wharton a..k.a. The Sauce Boss: 850-997-4359, www.sauceboss.com
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