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By Natalie Rachel Morris, Richard Villadoniga and Gary Paul Nabhan

How did an heirloom chile pepper rise from obscurity beyond a single county on the “First Coast” of Florida, and spread like wildfire until it reached the tables of Camp David and the White House?

First, there was the pride among Florida Crackers, Minorcan and Cuban immigrants for all things related to the heritage of St. Augustine, the oldest continuously-occupied European settlement and port in the continental United States.

{{ image(2575, {“class”: “flor round”, “width”:”250″, “height”:”188″, “method”: “img”}) }}But then there are the distinctive features and flavors of the pepper itself.

Former White House Chef David Bearl describes the Datil pepper’s flavor as so unique that he worked it into to Presidential dinners that featured distinctively American foods. “It’s hot, but it’s not too hot. You know, it’s not so hot that it overpowers, but it would if you used too many.”

Bearl, the former director of the Culinary Arts program at First Coast Technical College in St. Augustine, Florida, has been passionate about the Datil peppers for roughly fifteen years.

At roughly 2 inches and yellow-orange in color, its heat is deceptive. Its fruitier tropical flavor is the kind that will snag you at the back of the throat when you are least expecting it. Its Scoville strength rates at 350,000, putting it in nearly the same range as the Habanero or Scotch Bonnet.

In the 1980s, the seeds were virtually unavailable outside of St. Augustine, and few heirloom seed savers across the country had ever heard of the variety. In fact, the Datil’s cousin, the Habanero, had yet to become a hit in the U.S.

Then, eight years ago, Bearl saw an opportunity to use the Datil to help connect the growers and consumers in his community. Although locals were already enthusiastic about the pepper and took pride in it, few had access to enough plants.

He suggested to the college’s horticultural instructor, Eddie Lambert, that students could learn to grown the peppers, and offer them in containers once a year to raise support for his program. At the same time, Bearl would develop new uses for the Datil with his culinary arts students.

{{ image(2576, {“class”: “flol round”, “width”:”188″, “height”:”250″, “method”: “img”}) }}Bearl realized that if he could increase the availability of Datil peppers themselves, innovations would follow on their own. “The reason I wrote (our initial Datil pepper) grant was to put some rigor and relevance into our culinary program at First Coast Technical College. I wanted a project that meant something to the community that had some real science in it and that was relevant to the market. And St. Augustine definitely has a market for Datil peppers. It was part economic development. It was part rigor and relevance in the classroom and learning the pepper: where did it come from? How did it get here? And then the science to growing it and holding it, storing it, etc.”

The people of St. Augustine have always shared various stories of how the Datil came to their region, but now they have a reinvigorated sense of pride and, therefore, a renewed sense of place.

Under the leadership of a young teacher, “Cheech” Villadoniga, the Slow Food First Coast chapter helped board the Datil pepper onto the Slow Food Ark of Taste, and promoted it as part of heritage food tourism in their county.

Today, First Coast Technical College remains the main nursery source of the Datil pepper plants, selling plants and peppers to backyard growers, as well as to commercial producers of hot sauces.

The year after Bearl received his grant, the inaugural Datil Pepper Festival was held. Now reaching several thousand people over the two-day event, the festival features professional cook-offs and an amateur hot sauce contest among other Datil-related events.

“The growers are in a good position right now. Everything they grow can be sold. The demand exceeds supply at the moment,” Bearl explains. “And you really only have all the same problems any farm or any product would have. You know, pest control, bacterial or viral infections; the problems are the same. You have similar problems that you have to mitigate.”

Bearl is aware that the Datil pepper is now grown on a minor scale elsewhere in the country, but feels that its true value is as a place-based food of the First Coast.

“A heritage food to me means something with some regional or local value to it. The Datil and St. Augustine are synonymous and it gives it that kind of sense of place all its own. It has a unique St. Augustine character to it because of the Minorcan community. So, it’s (fame has) basically remained local.”

Read the full report, Conservation You Can Taste

Learn more about the history of the Datil Pepper


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