It’s the flavor of St. Augustine: Piquant, fruity and complex, with a long, lingering finish. Savor it slowly, and taste the point where Old and New World foodways merge and mingle.
Minorcan cuisine can best be described as coastal Spanish cooking with a kick. And while most regional American cuisines—including Cajun and Creole, Southwest, New England and Southern—have been lauded and popularized, the Minorcan hand in the pot remains an authentic Ancient City delight.
Of course, even here culinary pilgrims have to know where to look. “You won’t find any ‘Minorcan’ restaurants here,” says Sherry Stoppelbein, owner of Hot Shot Bakery & Café on Granada Street in Olde City. “But you will find Minorcan cooking influences many places.”
Chiefly, you’ll find dishes featuring the sweet heat of the Minorcan datil pepper, which is grown pretty much exclusively on Florida’s northeast coast. Stoppelbein, a native St. Augustinian and a direct descendant of Minorcan settlers on her mother’s side, has been called the Duchess of Datil for her array of Datil B Good-brand hot sauces, spicy fruit salsas, mustards and dessert sauces. She grows her own datil peppers, harvests the small, thin capsicums when they change from bright green to vivid yellow, and makes the sauces in her Luvin’ Oven catering kitchen.
“Every Minorcan family has their own datil sauce recipe that they’ve handed down, usually made from their own plants or from a neighbor’s,” says Stoppelbein. “The datil pepper plant is a fickle thing—you can grow a few plants pretty easily in this climate, and from June to September or October, you can get a bushel and a half of peppers from just one plant. As soon as you start trying to grow 100 plants, they catch all sorts of diseases. This year, we had to replant three times. That’s probably why you don’t see datil peppers as a commercial crop.”
The datil pepper figures prominently in such classic Minorcan dishes as shrimp, sausage or chicken pilau, Minorcan clam chowder, slow-simmered beans, and sauces featuring cooked or fresh tomatoes, garlic or citrus. Spicy, datil-kissed peanuts are a popular snack.
According to common lore, settlers from the Spanish island of Minorca (also spelled Menorca) brought their beloved pepper plant seeds with them to Florida. Some historians now believe the peppers, which are first cousins to habaneros, actually originated in Peru, then came with the Minorcans to Florida via a stopover in Cuba.
Either way, the Minorcans arrived in New Smyrna, south of Daytona, as indentured servants charged with creating a settlement and working the indigo plantation of Andrew Turnbull. Turnbull was a less-than-honorable Scottish physician who had been given a land grant in the newly British colony of Florida. The Minorcans found themselves badly treated and ultimately betrayed—the freedom and land rights they’d been promised after their contracted servitude never materialized. A party of Minorcans pled their case with the governor of Florida in St. Augustine, and with his protection, relocated to the Ancient City in 1777, bringing datil peppers and adaptations of Mediterranean recipes.
Since that time, Minorcan families such as the Higgenbothams, Rogeros, Pacettis, Mahons, Acostas and Ponces have claimed positions in politics, commerce, agriculture and hospitality in St. Augustine and points north. Their seafaring heritage can be seen in a love of simply prepared shellfish and fin-fish dishes, augmented with flavors from oranges, tomatoes, olives, herbs and both sweet and hot peppers.
Festivals in and around St. Augustine, such as the annual Cathedral Festival at the Mission of Nombre de Dios each April, often feature food booths offering traditional Minorcan dishes such as from-jardis, a savory cheese-stuffed pastry, or spicy pilau, made with rice and seafood, chicken or meat. But nowhere is there more Minorcan culinary magic on display than at the annual Great Chowder Debate, held the first weekend in November at the Conch House on Salt Run off the Intracoastal Waterway in St. Augustine.
The St. Augustine Shrine Club benefit celebrated its 25th year in 2009 with hundreds of visitors sampling Minorcan Conch Chowder, Minorcan Clam Chowder, New England Clam Chowder and Seafood Chowder. Judges declared winners in the four categories from dozens of contestants.
Of course, if you can’t make it to the Great Chowder Debate, you can still enjoy an excellent Minorcan Conch Chowder, which is served all year long at the popular resort. Add a datil-spiked Shrimp Martini or Sweet and Spicy Chicken Wings with honey datil sauce to round out the meal. And while it isn’t specifically Minorcan, you’d be remiss if you didn’t sit on the waterfront lounge deck and sip the Conch House’s World Famous Goombay Smash, a mixture of three different types of rum, apricot brandy and fruit juices.