Updated January 14, 2022–Mystery and intrigue surround the petite datil pepper, which is a key player in the distinctive food culture of St. Augustine on Florida’s historic coast. Datil pepper, like Hatch chiles, is a super local food that gets its identity from the place it grows. Although neither Hatch, New Mexico, nor St. Augustine, Florida, are recognized as the Denomination of Origin of their respective peppers, both communities are bound to the mystique of their beloved plants.
Before we tickle your fancy with the mysterious backstories of the datil pepper, let’s take a look at ‘what exactly is a datil pepper?’
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What is Datil Pepper?
Datil peppers were unknown to me until I started researching for an excursion to St. Augustine. Not surprising since few people outside St. Johns County had ever heard of it before the 1980s. I learned that the slight, spicy pepper’s color is green to yellow-gold as it ripens and turns a brilliant gold-orange at maturity. After harvest, cooks use fresh pods or dry the peppers and crush them into a powder for later use.
We’ll talk more about that in the datil pepper sauce recipe below. Many traditional St. Augustine recipes include datil peppers in one form or another.
How Did Datil Pepper Get Its Name?
The word ‘datil’ is familiar to Spanish speakers. It means date—as in the fruit that grows on palm trees. The blunt-tip shape of the datil pepper resembles the form of the date, and as the two photos above illustrate, the colors are incredibly similar, too. So then, the spicy hot datil pepper got its name from the sweet date.
How Hot Is Datil Pepper?
The Scoville scale measures the pungency or spiciness of chile peppers. You can see from the table above that datil pepper which ranges from 100K and 300K, has a similar Scoville heat unit (SHU) as the blazing-hot habanero, which means ‘from Havana’. In addition, both are of the same species, capsicum chinense. Since the datil pepper has an identical kick as habanero pepper, you could use datils to replace habaneros in any of your favorite recipes.
Hotter than a pepper sprout
What’s more, according to the table, datil pepper is approximately 35 to 40 times hotter than jalapeño chile pepper or Hatch green chiles.
“It starts out subtle, and it (the pepper) sneaks up on you,” reveals Colleen Messner, owner of The Spice & Tea Exchange in historic St. Augustine. She contributed one of the recipes below that include datil as an ingredient.
A deeper dive: Capsaicin
Did you ever wonder what made chile peppers so hot? Capsaicinoids are the class of compounds that cause pungency in chile peppers. According to Wikipedia, capsaicin is the major capsaicinoid in chile peppers. It is what causes the burning sensation that we feel when we eat peppers or prepare them without gloves covering our hands. Now you know!
How Hot Is Datil Pepper Sauce?
The heat of datil pepper sauce is dependent upon the peppers from which it is made. If the datil pepper sauce recipe uses only datil peppers and the producer does not cut the ingredients with wimpy peppers below the 100K to 300K SKU line, the sauce should hit the 100K to 300K SKU mark. Read the ingredients before you buy the datil pepper sauce featured at the end of this article.
Datil peppers are said to have a sweeter flavor than other peppers. However, since I did not taste a fresh datil pepper while in St. Augustine, I can’t affirm that. The sweetness tasted in datil pepper sauce, I attributed to honey, sugar or ketchup called for in many datil pepper sauce recipes. See below.
Where Is Datil Pepper Grown?
Well, I think we’ve already tipped our hand as to where is datil pepper grown. St. Augustine growers are the predominant producer of the hot little pods, although others throughout the world cultivate datil pepper.
Datil pepper is such a part of the St. Augustine food culture that the St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners proclaimed the datil pepper as the official plant of St. Johns County—the county in which St. Augustine is located. They also declared the first Saturday in October as Datil Pepper Day. Some say St. Augustine is the Capitol of the Datil Pepper because of the natural terroir of temperature, soil drainage and sunny weather.
The Datil pepper has become a cultivar, unlike other commercially grown peppers, through centuries of selection and isolation. It’s typically grown on small plots by gardeners with seeds passed down over generations.
“I call it the “mom and pop” industry—it is grown in local backyards and packs a flavorful punch,” says Colleen.
Why Mysterious? Datil Pepper Has Shrouded Origins
Time has shrouded the mysterious origins of datil pepper. Spanish settlers founded St. Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited European city in North America, in 1565. The Spanish and their priest celebrated mass and America’s first Thanksgiving 55 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. That being said, you can understand why over 450 years of history could cloud the origins of a humble pepper.
Over the years, stories retold through generations of planters have become favorite fables, with locals gravitating to the idea that Minorcan indentured servants brought datil peppers here.
The story begins as poor families from Minorca, a tiny Mediterranean island off the east coast of Spain, packed their belongings and foodstuffs for the promise of land and the good life in the New World. It was 1768, and by now, the British were solidly in control of Florida—or so they thought.
Death and disease
The Minorcans indentured themselves into service at a British-owned 100K acre plantation south of St. Augustine at New Smyrna. However, hopes were dashed as malaria, malnutrition, scurvy and gangrene began picking off the workers. Overseers abused and mistreated the indentured servants, and after nine years of exploitation, 410 laborers took to St. Augustine for asylum.
Today their descendants—estimated at over 10K in St. Johns County—believe that the datil pepper brought by the disheartened asylum seekers from the south initially came from Minorca. Others disagree.
West Indies Slave Trade
Some maintain that the Minorcans got datil peppers from African slaves on the New Smyrna plantation since there is no evidence of capsicum chinense cultivation in the Mediterranean at the time. Researchers say that Cayenne pepper, a different species, was grown in Menorca. The slaves came via the West Indies, where capsicum chinense grew so that they would have had access to datil.
But pepper scholar Jean Andrews says ixnay on that idea. “No matter where the peppers came from, it is not likely that the Africans at New Smyrna introduce the datil to the Minorcans,” the author says in A Botanical Mystery: The Elusive Trail of the Datil Pepper to St. Augustine. Instead, she postulates that datil could have come from Cuba via shipment of religious goods to the Minorcan parish priest in Florida.
Tip: Experience an authentic Minorcan homestead when you visit the Oldest Wooden School House Historic Museum & Gardens in historic St. Augustine.
Mystery Plant: Datil Peppers
Another theory to the origins of the datil pepper is that jelly maker S. B. Valls brought them from Cuba around 1880. Valls opened the Fruit Preserve Factory on the corner of Charlotte and Cuna, as you can see in the 1885 map above. Dave DeWitt and Paul W. Bosland discuss this theory in their book, The Complete Chile Pepper Book, Timber Press.
Unsolved Mystery of the Datil Pepper
Although the University of Florida’s DNA research of the datil pepper points to the Yucatan Penninsula as the origin, there still is no consensus. Nevertheless, one thing is sure when you visit St. Augustine, you are sure to find many datil-inspired and infused dishes, including datil pepper hot sauce, honey, jellies, relishes, mustards and beer.
So if you order any of these at a local store or restaurant, then you need to know…
How do you Pronounce Datil Pepper Sauce?
Datil rhymes with ‘that’ll’ –it’s effortless to pronounce! “Dat’ll pep-uh saws.”
Where Can I Buy Datil Pepper Sauce?
You can buy datil pepper sauce at the two-day Datil Pepper Fall Festival held in October in St. Augustine. But, if you can’t wait that long, buy datil pepper sauce online at Amazon from these recommended producers. By clicking on the images below:
Datil Pepper Sauce Recipe
Recipe courtesy of Edible Northeast Florida
- 6 cups datil peppers with seeds, but stems and caps removed
- 1 32-ounce bottle white distilled vinegar
- 1 quart canned tomatoes
- 3 28-ounce bottles Hunt’s 100% natural ketchup
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 1 head garlic, separated and peeled
- Worcestershire sauce (optional)
- Red wine (optional)
- Figs (optional)
Fill blender with datil peppers. Cover peppers with white distilled vinegar and blend. Add the sliced onion and the garlic cloves to the datil mixture and blend until smooth. Pour datil-onion-garlic mixture into a large saucepan.
Add canned tomatoes to the blender and blend well. Add some local figs to this step for a little additional sweetness. Add tomato mixture and ketchup to a pot and stir until well combined. Add red wine and Worcestershire sauce to taste, if desired. Cook sauce on medium-low, occasionally stirring, for at least two hours or as long as desired.
Audio recording of making a datil pepper sauce recipe
Cooking with Powdered Datil Pepper
“We dehydrate our peppers and turn them into powder form. Then, we add datil powder to many blends that we make, including the Signature Blend, Matanzas Chili Blend, Tailgators Blend, Pirates Bite and a Spice Cocoa Blend mix,” explains Colleen. In addition, she shared her secret chocolate chip cookie recipe that features the Spiced Cocoa blend.
Spiced Cocoa Chocolate Chip Cookies
1 cup butter softened
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cups Spiced Cocoa blend (approx 5 ounces)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
1 cup chocolate chips
Cream butter and sugars together, then add vanilla and eggs.
Combine dry ingredients in a separate bowl, then slowly add to wet ingredients until blended. Add in chocolate chips.
Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350.
Drop about two tablespoons worth of dough per cookie, 2 inches apart, onto parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes. Cool on cookie sheet for 5 minutes then move to cooling rack.
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