Datil Peppers: Heat with a History

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Today, Barnes’ dining establishment is bringing people back to Hastings. “I think people really miss the cooking of their mothers and grandmothers, but just as importantly, people want a place to gather. Folks want a place where they can visit with friends, chat and gossip, and leave with their bellies happy too. I think we’re the new Elmo’s in town,” he declared. Other businesses have sprouted in town, including some competition—a Low Country eatery just a block away. Barnes is not afraid of a little rivalry. “I think it’s great for the town. Plus, now I’ll have a place where I can eat dinner!” he said, flashing a big grin.

Barnes’ love affair with the Datil pepper is making converts out of the next generation of eaters, gardeners, and enthusiasts. His restaurant’s walls are hidden behind shelves loaded with homemade Datil vinegar and Datil sauces of all kinds. “I had someone drive out here the other day, a fellow restaurant owner,” he recounted. “She had some of my coleslaw and absolutely went nuts for it. She asked me what I put in it—it’s a real simple recipe, but the ingredient that makes all the difference is Datil vinegar. It just gives it that zing!” Barnes makes his own Datil vinegar by soaking the peppers for months in bottles of white distilled vinegar, which can keep for over a year. You can find Datil vinegar on tabletops in restaurants all over the St. Augustine area, but Johnny’s Kitchen takes the cake when it comes to its display, with old vodka and bourbon bottles filled with the spicy potion prominently lining the shelves. And just like the annual Elkton Fair not far from his restaurant, Barnes has cultivated a devoted following for his spicy pilaus and chowders, which are often requested at weddings and other events he caters. “I’m not afraid to add Datil peppers to anything.” His chowder, in particular, is not for the faint of heart.  

Datil peppers, cousins of the more intense Habaneros, are small and yellow-orange in hue, with a fruitiness that adds a unique flavor that many other spicy peppers lack. “It’s not just heat with Datils. It’s the different flavor that makes them so special,” testified Barnes.  

The plants regularly grow to between one and two-and-a-half feet tall, with white blossoms and slightly elongated fruit that rarely get bigger than two inches in length. No one is sure how they got their name, especially considering that the word datil is Spanish for “date,” and the fruit and the pepper don’t look much alike. An interesting detail about the Datil is that—despite attempts by many gardeners to cultivate it in other regions—the temperamental pepper seems to be picky about its surroundings, and most efforts to grow them elsewhere have failed. “There’s a saying around here that goes, ‘Datils don’t like to get their feet wet.’  And it’s true. Too much water is no good and our sandy soils help drain the rainfall from their roots. In fact, many people grow their Datils on mounds for better drainage,” Barnes told me. Weevils have attacked the plants in the past, damaging the local crop, but the biggest threats to supply are the lack of large-scale producers (most locals just grow a few plants for their own use) and hurricanes, which dump heavy rains and pack a punch with fierce winds that destroy the fragile plants.  

Still, there is hope that people like Barnes and Masters will inspire others to plant Datil peppers, or at the very least cook with them. Chef David Bearl, director of the First Coast Technical College’s award-winning Culinary Arts program, is doing both. He is convinced that the Datil pepper has the potential to be as popular nationwide as the ubiquitous jalapeño. “We’ve grown over 30,000 plants in the past two years and currently have about 700 plants under shade for use in food and for resale. Our work with Datils is a sustainable project that helps us teach agriculture to our students, with the ultimate hope being that the Datil will become a nationally recognized pepper. This would be great for the local farmers and producers of Datil products,” Bearl explained to me. He and his students continue to grow them and make value-added products with them for sale in the campus student café and bookstore, and they sell plants and peppers. His team has already come up with a multitude of recipes that feature the peppers, including some for sausages, jellies, and even chocolate. By coming up with new ways to utilize Datils, the expectation is to increase the demand for them and encourage more farmers to grow them. In the future, consumers may be able to use fresh Datils in their home cooking or purchase prepared condiments—such as hot sauces and relishes—in supermarkets across the country.  

Datil pepper plants
Datil pepper plants

Back in Hastings, Barnes waxes philosophical about the Datil pepper and its place in the community as we chow down on some of his chowder. “In the end, this is not just about using some rare little pepper in my cooking,” said Barnes. “This is about cooking with ingredients that resonate with people because it takes them back to a simpler time when food brought people together. I remember growing up and churning our own ice cream every Sunday on my Grandpa’s front porch. It’s not just the Datil that’s endangered; it’s our entire food culture that’s threatened. I want my cooking to connect with people.” As for me, I’m happy to do my part, one bowl of chowder at a time.

To order a Datil plant of your own, contact Bearl at rotachef@yahoo.com or go here.

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