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Rare foods experts visit St. Augustine for pepper

By: Richard Villadoniga
Published: November 5, 2009

Gary Nabhan, of the Renewing America’s Food Traditions Alliance and an award-winning writer on food biodiversity, visited St. Augustine recently to research St. Johns County’s datil pepper.

Several years ago. Nabhan first nominated the datil pepper for the Slow Food Ark of Taste, a “Hall of Fame” for rare but flavorful regional foods. Now he and two colleagues are looking at how climate change is affecting food supply, particularly with regard to its impacts on rare, place-based heritage foods.

With the help of Chef Kurt Friese of Iowa City and Kraig Kraft, an agroecologist, Nabhan is touring North America to get a better sense of how culinary traditions are adjusting to changes in the climate and ecosystems.

“We just got back from a trip to northern Mexico, just over the Arizona border. We were looking at a pepper that is harvested there called the chiltepin, which was recently hit by a hurricane that dumped 22 inches of rain in the desert in one day,” Nabhan said. “Because it’s the only native wild pepper in North America, we’ve been worried that storms, floods, and even drought are reducing its availability,”

Kraft is also worried.

“We’re using chiles as just one lens for looking at climate change,” Kraft said. “People have this image of melting icebergs and drowning polar bears, but climate change is already affecting our food traditions and where certain crops can be grown. In the future, all that we know about modern farming might have to be reconsidered.”

Studying the effects of climate change on chiles makes sense when you reflect on how universal they are in global cooking.

“Chiles are the world’s No. 1 condiment,” Friese said. “From a chef’s perspective, climate change might have a tremendous effect on how and what we eat in the future.”

On a mission

While in St. Augustine, the trio visited the First Coast Technical College and met with Chef David Bearl, whose culinary arts department experiments with datils. The school’s greenhouse is home to thousands of datil pepper bushes. Bearl and his students are investigating new products to expand the market for Datils.

Marcia McQuaig, owner of Minorcan Datil Pepper Products, also received a visit from the group, which was impressed with the variety of items her company sells. The group sampled some of them before meeting with farmers in Hastings, then feasted on datil-spiked pilau at Johnny’s Kitchen. Johnny Barnes, the owner of the Hastings eatery, presented the three men with homemade datil vinegar to take home with them.

“I just wanted to make sure they left with a little bit of St. Johns County with them,” Barnes said.

While in town, the group spoke to the St. Johns County Commission in support of local agriculture and encouraged them to consider agritourism as a future source of revenue.

“St. Johns County has a lot of potential to promote heritage tourism through its rich farming history, the datil included. Many areas around the country are finding that preserving agricultural lands makes good economic sense and adds to the community’s cultural fabric,” Nabhan said.

Before leaving St. Augustine, the men attended a dinner featuring local foods, sponsored by members of Slow Food First Coast, a local non-profit organization that supports the area’s family farms and food traditions. Nabhan’s colleague Chef Friese is on the board of directors of Slow Food USA and worked with Slow Food First Coast to celebrate the datil pepper’s boarding onto the Ark of Taste, a list of culturally significant and endangered American foods.



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