Food and Culture: Minorcan Clam Chowder in St. Augustine, Florida

More and more people are traveling to a destination for the food, and Florida is no exception. Visitors to the Sunshine State expect an abundance of fresh local seafood and that’s exactly what you’ll discover in St. Augustine. During my stay, I enjoyed St. Augustine shrimp, Cod Bacalao, oysters, and Lionfish ceviche.

St. Augustine Fried Shrimp
St. Augustine Fried Shrimp with hushpuppies – a MUST try! ©Priscilla Willis

Ask three locals where to find the best St. Augustine Fried Shrimp and you’ll get three different answers.  A name that popped up several times as the original St. Augustine Fried Shrimp was O’Steens. My St. Augustine Fried Shrimp epiphany happened at The Conch House overlooking Matanzas River.  The Lionfish Ceviche at Catch 27 is noteworthy for its use of an invasive species threatening the coral reefs and marine ecosystem. Chef/Owner Stephen Hutson has a passion for sustainable seafood and his unique Lionfish ceviche is not only creative but also addresses the problem of increasing numbers of this invasive species in Florida’s reefs.

However, I was most smitten by a spicy specialty that you won’t find anywhere else in the world except for St. Augustine and the island of Minorca (also spelled Menorca) off the coast of Spain. That dish is Minorcan Clam Chowder. Having read about Minorcan chowder beforehand, it was my culinary goal to taste several renditions during my visit. Mission accomplished! I savored Minorcan chowder at Catch 27, a popular local restaurant,  and St. Augustine Seafood Company, an impressive, newly opened, fast-casual concept.

Minorcan Clam Chowder
Minorcan Clam Chowder at St. Augustine Seafood Company. ©Priscilla Willis

Spanish Influence on Florida Cuisine

We know, if we remember anything from high school history, that the first settlers in Florida were Spanish. In fact, Florida was discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513 who claimed the land for Spain and named it La Florida (the land of the flowers). Therefore, it follows that Florida’s cuisine has a strong Spanish influence which includes popular dishes like ceviche, empanadas, arroz con pollo, and more.

Minorca (or Menorca) is one of the Balearic islands (along with Mallorca and Ibiza) that belong to Spain and are located in the Mediterranean Sea.  Minorcans were among the people recruited by Scottish speculator John Turnbull as indentured servants to work on his New Smyrna Indigo plantation south of St. Augustine.

guide wearing traditional Menorcan clothing at Cathedral Basilica St. Augustine
Guide at Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine wearing traditional Minorcan attire. ©Priscilla Willis

The Minorcans were among a group of 1,400 European settlers who set sail in 1768 for what was then British East Florida. The group included peoples from Minorca, Greece, Italy, Corsica, and France. It was the largest group to immigrate in a single crossing to the New World.

The courageous efforts of the group to tame the wilderness and settle a portion of Northeast Florida represents a major contribution to early American history. Following nine years of harsh conditions and even harsher treatment, then, decimated by disease and starvation, the remaining 700 souls walked to St. Augustine. They petitioned the governor, who granted them space to settle in the northwest section of the old walled city. {Source: The Menorcan Cultural Society}

Minorcan Cuisine is Mediterranean Cuisine

Naturally, Minorcans brought with them their Mediterranean cuisine, a little different from Spanish cuisine, and as an island nation, heavily influenced by a history of invaders: Roman, British, and French. Minorcan food is simple, seasonal, and always fresh. It is based on seafood, especially clams, lobsters, and squid.

Minorcan clam chowder, Menorcam clam chowder
Minorcan Clam Chowder is distinguished by the Datil pepper. ©Priscilla Willis

How is Minorcan Chowder Different From Other Clam Chowders?

Inquiring minds want to know, and I soon discovered that what makes Minorcan clam chowder different from the more familiar red Manhattan chowder is the Datil pepper. The Datil pepper is a key ingredient in many Minorcan recipes in St. Augustine. It is used to create delicious, tongue-tingling hot sauces, jellies, and mustards sold all over town. Grown in abundance in St. Augustine, the datil pepper is a small hot pepper from a variety of the species Capsicum chinense, also known as “yellow lantern chili.”

Walking the quaint brick, pedestrian-only streets of St. Augustine’s historic Colonial area, I spied the sign for St. Augustine Seafood Company and had my first taste of this special red clam chowder I’d heard so much about.

I like to quiz the locals, so I asked the personable young man behind the counter what makes Minorcan Clam Chowder different.  He cheerfully obliged with an educated response and broad smile:

“The islands of Minorca grow the Datil pepper. St. Augustine is one of the few
spots where Datil peppers grow, so that’s what gives it our spice here. Gives it
that originality, right there. So it’s the Datil pepper that’s gonna make it a little bit
spicier. I’m a fan of mixing it half and half, too – some people don’t like the spices
that much.”

We agreed that we like it spicy and that the heat index in their version doesn’t set your mouth on fire. But, if you have a low tolerance for peppers, you may want to try the half and half  — a combination of red and white, half Minorcan and half New England clam chowder.

For an authentic Minorcan Clam Chowder recipe, head over to She’s Cookin’ | food and travel.

Priscilla Willis

Priscilla Willis is a freelance writer and author of the popular Orange County blog, She’s Cookin’ | food and travel. Priscilla specializes in culinary travel and soft adventure to burn those calories. She divides her time between Southern California and NW Arkansas.