What Are Datil Peppers And Why Are They Special To St. Augustine, FL?

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For most peppers, the heat level is generally the main distinctive feature, whether it's a mild bell or serrano to the mind-numbing habanero or Pepper X. But what about those peppers that are as much tied to place as taste? 

Enter the datil pepper. Bright reddish-orange and diminutive in size, the datil pepper is a spicy ingredient that, if you've seen it at all, you probably spotted in the coastal jewel city of St. Augustine, Florida. The reason for that is that the datil has been grown, almost exclusively, in St. Augustine since the late 1800s, providing locals with the ultimate hot and slightly sweet pepper for all of their culinary ventures.

But how did this pepper come to be grown in the oldest city in America? Grab a glass of cool milk because you're about to take a spicy deep dive into the history and uses of the datil pepper. 

The hot history of this Florida pepper

Though the history of the datil pepper is intrinsically linked with St. Augustine, the botanical origins are a bit of a mystery. Legend suggests that it was brought by the Spanish Minorcan settlers —hardy indentured servants who came to St. Augustine in the 18th century after fleeing a failed settlement. Others claim it came to the U.S. via the African slave trade and mutated from seeds of the similar African Fatalii pepper. Even their scientific assignation, Capsicum Chinese, is a red herring, as it was originally mislabeled as a variety native to China when really it's a product of the New World.  

Perhaps the most valid theory is that it came from Chile with S.B. Vallas, a South American businessman who set up his pepper jelly trade in St. Augustine in 1880. This fits the timeline well, as this is the oldest instance of the datil pepper referred to by name in recorded history. 

As far as it's recent history, the citizens of St. Augustine have held the flame for this pepper for over a hundred years, growing, harvesting, and selling the datil at its farmer's markets and restaurants, making it the fiery emblem of the city.   

How hot is the Datil pepper?

For a pepper that's been continuously grown for over a century, you have to assume the datil is a delicious pepper. Of course, when we're talking about peppers, heat level is relevant, so how exactly hot is this tiny pepper? On the Scoville scale, it ranges from 100,000 to 300,000 (close to the habanero), a heat level that is roughly 40-50 times hotter than the common jalapeño, which runs from 2,000-8,000 on the same scale. 

Balancing out this burst of heat is a fruity sweetness likened to the taste offered by scotch bonnet peppers, only less earthy. This fruitiness makes the datil both spicy and flavorful, ideal for a condiment like pepper jelly. Though it's definitely on the spicier side, the datil is mild enough to work in cooking in a way that atomic peppers like, say, the world's hottest pepper, the Dragon's Breath chili, just can't. 

What to do with your datil

If you're looking to cook with these golden orange peppers, let's address some prep notes. If you're going the fresh route, consider slicing and/or chopping it up before adding it to your dish. With a pepper as spicy as datil, you should invest in some gloves and possibly goggles to protect your skin and eyes from the spicy juices. If you want to limit its spiciness, try removing the white pith of the pepper, as that's where a lot of the heat (a chemical called capsaicin) hides. Now that you've prepped your fresh datil, what should you add it to? 

When working with the St. Augustine classic, it's best to treat it like they would. Though it can't be proven that the Minorcan population brought the datil to St. Augustine, they have thoroughly adopted the pepper to work in their cuisine as it helped spice and preserve their many dishes.  Famed Minorcan clam chowder is one such dish that receives a kick from the datil, as do their many forms of pilau, a Minorcan rice dish accented with tomatoes and protein. But perhaps the most common home recipe that uses datil is one for homemade hot sauce, which can be accomplished with little more than two cups of datil peppers, 2 bottles of ketchup, and 3 cups of vinegar. Add it to seafood, chicken wings, salad dressings, hot dips, and anything else you think needs a kick of spicy sweetness.  

Where to get it

The thing that makes these peppers so unique — their exclusivity to St. Augustine, Florida — also makes them harder to find. If you want fresh datil peppers, you'll need to make a trip to the markets of St. Augustine. While there, you can also get a taste of the fresh pepper in a number of restaurant dishes, from the Sunset Grille's datil-spiked shrimp and grits to Florida Cracker Cafe's Dat'l Do It Chicken Wings. 

Still, if you have a little bit of patience, you can order datil pepper seeds on Amazon and try your hand at growing your own in your home garden. Just keep in mind that they need lots of sunshine and prefer sandy, dry soil (most compatible in growing zones 9-11). 

However, the pepper itself is just one type of datil product. The St. Augustinians have turned this pepper into every kind of condiment imaginable, from jellies to vinegar. For those looking to bring some serious heat to their pantry, try Dat'l Do It Hot Sauce, a local favorite, or you can head to Hot Stuff, a St. Augustine hot sauce store that'll have every datil hot sauce under one roof. The most extensive collection of datil pepper products can be found on the Minorcan Datil Pepper Products website. Datil-accented mayonnaise, salsa, roasted peanuts, and jam are just a few examples of their spicy line-up. Either way, if you like it hot and a touch sweet, give datil peppers a try.