Datil peppers

The Datil pepper (Bill Delaney)

Datil peppers are a small, waxy, and extraordinarily hot variant of the habanero-type pepper, Capsicum chinense. Many farms, gardens and front porches around the First Coast grow these legendary peppers – in fact, they’re so common that many locals don’t realize they’re a heavily localized variant that’s basically unknown anywhere else.

Two rival origin myths attribute the arrival of the datil pepper in St. Augustine to different groups with centuries of history in the First Coast: the Cubans and the Minorcans. Florida’s Cuban connection dates to the earliest days of Spanish colonization in the 16th century. The Minorcans, from the Spanish Mediterranean island of Menorca, came to Florida to settle the New Smyrna colony in the 18th century. When this venture failed, the Minorcans relocated north to St. Augustine, where their descendants number about 25,000 across St. Johns County today.

Datil peppers have long been part of local Minorcan cuisine, lending credence to the story that they brought it over. However, the peppers aren’t grown in Menorca; they’re habanero-type peppers native to the Caribbean and Central America – “habanero” refers to Havana, Cuba. A 1937 St. Augustine Record article confirms that datils were first brought to St. Augustine from Santiago, Cuba around 1880 by jelly maker Esteban B. Valls. The peppers thrived in Valls’ garden and quickly became popular around town, with the Minorcan community embracing them as their own. Today, datil peppers are common in dishes, sauces and marinades all over the First Coast.

Minorcan chowder

Minorcan chowder at Chowder Ted’s at 5215 Heckscher Dr. on Jacksonville’s Northside.

Minorcan chowder is a local dish popularized by the Minorcan community of St. Augustine. The Minorcans, from the Spanish Mediterranean island of Menorca, came to Florida to settle the New Smyrna colony in the 18th century. This thick soup comprises a red broth thickened and colored by tomatoes and tomato paste, supplemented with potatoes, vegetables and chopped clams or other seafood. The dish derives from the Mediterranean cooking traditions of Minorca, where hearty hearty tomato soups were popular with sailors and fishermen. As a chowder with a tomato base, Minorcan chowder is most similar to Manhattan chowder, rather than the venerable New England clam chowder made with milk and cream. The distinguishing feature of Minorcan chowder is the datil pepper, which gives it a scorching heat with a touch of sweetness. Today, Minorcan chowder can be found not only in St. Augustine but in Jacksonville and elsewhere around the First Coast.

Old Town Fernandina

Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park in Old Town. (Ennis Davis, AICP)

Located just north of downtown Fernandina, Old Town holds the distinction of being the last Spanish city platted in the Western Hemisphere. Platted in 1811, the plat is based on the 1573 Law of the Indies. This was a document the Spanish used to organize new towns they settled as a result of their explorations.

Old Town served as the original town site of Fernandina until David Levy Yulee platted a “new” Fernandina during the 1860s, shifting the center of the town from Old Town to its present location. Roughly bounded by Bosque Bello Cemetery, Nassau, Marine, Ladies and Towngate Streets, Old Town was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places as a historic site on January 29, 1990.

Jacksonville’s short-lived Cuban cigar industry

José Huau’s cigar store at the corner of Bay Street and Pine (Main) Street in Jacksonville. (Courtesy of https://www.latinamericanstudies.org/huau.htm)

Commercial cigar rolling in Florida dates as far back as the 1830s. Seeking to market authentic Cuban cigars in America, while avoiding high tariffs from Havana and Spanish trade restrictions, Samuel Seidenberg opened the first cigar factory in Key West in 1867.

Late 19th century cigar makers also found Jacksonville as an attractive location to process Havana tobacco. At the time, Jacksonville was the terminus of six railroads, home to a deep river channel, and considered the gateway to Florida, the Bahamas, and Cuba. Most of Jacksonville’s cigar makers were clustered into two areas within walking distance of Bay Street. East Bay in the vicinity of Liberty Street, and West Bay in the vicinity of LaVilla’s Broad Street.

By 1895, Jacksonville had become home to fifteen cigar manufacturing companies and thousands of Cuban immigrants. Its largest, Gabriel Hidalgo-Gato’s El Modelo Cigar Manufacturing Company, employed 225 and produced six million stogies annually. However, city council member José Alejandro Huau, Hidalgo-Gato’s brother-in-law, may have been the most popular cigar factory owner in town. Employing 150 workers at his own West Bay Street factory, Huau was influential in José Martí visiting Jacksonville eight times between 1891 and 1898, to stir up enthusiasm and financial support for Cuba’s freedom movement.

Jacksonville’s budding hand rolled cigar industry eventually declined with the emergence of Tampa’s Ybor City. In addition, following Cuba’s independence, many Cuban residents living in town returned to the island.