Photo from O'Steen's Restaurant in St. Augustine, FL.
Beyond the debate of whether creamy, clear, or tomato-based clam chowder
is best, St. Augustine, Florida, has its own famous hopped-up version called Minorcan clamchowder.
Hopped up, it is! This tomato based, Manhattan-style chowder has one very potent
ingredient: datil pepper. Datil peppers are hotter than jalapeno or
Tabasco peppers but not quite as hot as habeneros. They are green to yellow-orange, and a little bigger than a
jalapeno. Long lines of diners at local restaurants attest to the popularity of this fiery
chowder. Most historians, when writing about clam chowder, fail to mention Minorcan. Maybe
it's because they don't know about it, or because the datil pepper used in this chowder is
grown only in the St. Augustine area.
The Minorcan tale and the Minorcan clam chowder began when eight ships were launched
off the coast of Spain (Mediterranean Island of Minorca) in 1768. The 1,403 passengers on
board were bound for an indigo plantation in New Smyrna, south of St. Augustine. Though
the Minorcans believed themselves to be contracted as indentured servants to Dr. Andrew
Turnbull, the plantation's owner, the realty was a situation bordering on enslavement. For
nine long years, the Minorcans were forced to endure suffering and hardship.
Settlers who managed to survive, escaped in 1777 from the plantation and made their way
to St. Augustine, where they came under the protection of Governor Patrick Tonyn. They
brought their own spices and cooking traditions with them, and the key ingredient was the
datil pepper. Just as in New England, chowder was an easy food to make, it could be cooked
in one pot, and it would feed many hungry people. It was a meal made from necessity using
fish that was plentiful in their new surroundings and their own familiar seasonings, not
one they had brought from their homeland. The Minorcans were extraordinary fishermen. The
fish was plentiful and the soil was poor, so their creativity probably led to dishes like
Maggi Smith Hall, author of Flavors of St. Augustine, a cookbook that traces the
history of St. Augustines' cooking, found evidence that the tomato was grown in St.
Augustine at least during the second Spanish period (1784-1821). She states:
"Tomatoes were one of the crops grown by Phillip Fatio, who had a
plantatiion in Switzerland, Florida. So, while New Englanders were enjoying their
cream-based chowder, those make-do Minorcans were already using the tomato."
Minorcan Clam Chowder - How To Make Minorcan Clam Chowder
Yields: 10 servings
Prep time: 20 min
Cook time: 60 min
1/2 pound bacon
3 large green bell peppers, diced
4 stalks celery, diced
1 quart chopped clams with juice
1 to 2 bottles clam juice (optional - may not need)
2 large (16-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon thyme or to taste
2 bay leaves
2 to 3 datil chile pepper or to taste, diced*
potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Habanero or jalapeno chile peppers may be substituted, but your chowder will
not be considered authentic. If you don't live in the St. Augustine, Florida area, it is
pretty much impossible to find these chile peppers.
In a frying pan, fry bacon, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until crispy; drain off
the fat and reserve. Remove bacon from the pan with a slotted spoon onto paper towels to drain. Break or cut fried bacon
into pieces: set aside for garnish.
In large soup pot or cast-iron
Dutch Oven, add 2 to 3 tablespoons of the bacon fat. In the bacon
fat, add onions, green peppers and celery and sauté till soft.
Add clams and clam juice, tomatoes, salt, pepper, thyme, bay leaves, and
datil peppers. Bring just to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 1 hour. Add
potatoes and cook 30 to 45 minutes more.
NOTE: Add additional stock, or clam juice if broth is too thick. You may have to add
a little water (or more tomatoes) to adjust consistency. You can also adjust
the amounts of vegetables to suit your taste as this chowder is thick and
Some people prefer to refrigerate the prepared soup over
night before serving. If you decide to refrigerate, reheat soup before
Makes 10 servings.