Local Flavors: St. Augustine, Florida - #113

Every town in the world has a local flavor.  A flavor that comes from its signature dishes, from a group of preferred ingredients, or a type of restaurant that is popular.  It is a flavor that comes from appreciating a particular piece of equipment or a cooking technique.  There are dozens of things that make up the local flavor, but the most important influences are always the result of history, geography and economics.

This is St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest continually occupied city in the eastern United States.  It has preserved much of its past in ways that make it easy to get a look at some of our nation's earliest history.  So please, join me, Burt Wolf, for a taste of the local flavors of St. Augustine, Florida.

In 1513, Juan Ponce De Leon sailed along the Atlantic coast of North America searching for a fountain.  A fountain whose waters could return a man's youthful vigor.  There were rumors that it produced headaches, blue vision and dizziness, but he was still determined to find it.  He never did.  But the Spanish continued their interest in the area, and for good reason.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The primary occupation of the average conquistador consisted of taking gold and silver from the native populations and shipping it back to Spain in a treasure galleon. 

The ships would start in the Caribbean, pass between Miami and Cuba and head up the east coast of Florida.  Just as they got even with Cape Canaveral, they would make a quick right and head back to Spain.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Phillip the Second was the King of Spain at the time, and he disliked the idea of his treasure ships sailing along a coast controlled by the French or the English, both of whom were his enemies.  Not only were they interested in stealing his treasures, but if they ever took control of Spain, they would force him to eat heavy sauces and large pieces of roasted beef, both of which he disliked. And so he sent Pedro Menendez to secure the coast of Florida.  Menendez arrived on St. Augustine's feast day, and so he named his settlement accordingly. 

The most impressive structure from St. Augustine's Spanish period is the Castillo de San Marcos which was built in 1672.  It was constructed from a local shell rock called coquina, which appears to have made it invincible.

When enemy cannon balls would hit the coquina, it would just slide into the shells and stop without causing much damage.  In 1702, James Moore, the English Governor of South Carolina, arrived with his troops, and for 50 days, besieged the Castillo.  Fifteen hundred Spanish citizens from St. Augustine and the surrounding area rushed into the fort and refused to surrender.

They had a deep well in the court yard that supplied them with plenty of fresh water.  And instead of filling the moat with sea water, they filled it with cattle.  The British finally gave up the siege, declared the Castillo impregnable, and went home to South Carolina. 

The Castillo is surrounded by the old city.  And the best way to see it is in a horse drawn carriage.


BURT WOLF: Our guide was Michelle Gastineau from Tour St. Augustine.  All ahead one third.

MICHELLE GASTINEAU  ON CAMERA: My family's been here since 1777.  And I'm a descendant of an indentured servant named Andres Pacetti, who was part of a group brought from a small island in Minorca in 1768 to work on a plantation here in Florida.  Minorka's part of the Balearic island chain.  Most people are familiar with Majorca.  Then, there's Minorca.  The major and the minor in the island chain are off the coast of Spain.  We're here by the heart of the city, the city plaza.  The plaza itself is actually the oldest thing in the city of St. Augustine.  It was laid out in 1598.  The Spanish King had decreed that all of the businesses and all of the churches had to face the central plaza, and many of them do to this day.

This is our bay front.  And it's beautiful.  It was actually created by Henry Morrison Flagler.  This street, this strip of land didn't exist until Flagler had it filled in.  He wanted to create the Riviera of the Americas.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Flagler was a guy who came down and built all the railroads and did all the land development in Florida.

MICHELLE GASTINEAU  ON CAMERA:  He's known as the father of Florida tourism.  Had it not been for Flagler’s development of the Florida east coast railway and a series of huge hotels, it might have been years before saint -- St. Augustine and Florida in general, had become a tourist destination.

St. Augustine was literally a walled Catholic city.  There was a palm log wall that ran from the fort, the Castillo de San Marcos, west, and then turned and went back around to the south and to the bay. 

MICHELLE GASTINEAU  ON CAMERA:  Now, the city gates behind us are made of coquina, our native shell stone, and they were placed here in 1808.  They replaced a set of wooden gates that were there.  There was always a drawbridge.  And this was the only land entrance into the city.  The drawbridge was raised every evening and not lowered again until the next morning.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: So you had to get home early.


One of St. Augustine's more unusual couples is the St. Augustine love tree directly behind us.  It has a live palm growing right up out of the middle of an oak tree.  And they're locked in a permanent loving embrace.

MICHELLE GASTINEAU  ON CAMERA:  Well, St. Augustine's a very romantic city.  Now, legend has it that if you propose marriage underneath the love tree and if the young woman accepts, well then your marriage will be blessed forever.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What if you're standing under the tree and she doesn't accept.

MICHELLE GASTINEAU ON CAMERA: Well, then you don't have a problem. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Thanks a lot, Dee.



DEE ON CAMERA: Enjoy the rest of your stay.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I'm sure we will.

During the 1500s, the Spanish built the first St. Augustine lighthouse so their ships could get a fix on their position.  Unfortunately, Sir Francis Drake also got a fix on it, and in 1586, sailed in and sacked the city.  Sacking was Sir Francis' favorite thing, and he did it as often as he could.  And of course, the Spanish built lighthouses as often as they could.  It was a complex and emotional relationship, but they seemed to need it.  Eventually, this became the site of Florida's first lighthouse.  It's 165 feet high with a spiral staircase running up the center.  If you are in excellent shape, have recently completed the advanced Stairmaster class, and have a note from your cardiologist, you might want to climb up to the top and get a great view of the city.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: You guys want anything else before I come back up?

In 1763, the French and Indian war came to an end and the Spanish gave Florida to the English.  At that point, a Captain Peavett of the British militia arrived in town and bought himself a house right here on St. Francis Street. 

His wife suggested that they turn the downstairs into a tavern so that they could feed the officers who lived in the barracks across the street.  Today, the property is known as the oldest house, and archaeologists believe that it has been continuously occupied since the early 1600s. 

You can tour the property and visit the detached kitchen.  Kitchens were built away from the house because people feared setting the main house on fire.  And the distance between the kitchen and the house helped keep the main structure cooler.  

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The Spanish, like most governments, had a rather bizarre approach to taxation and placed a levy on all cupboards and shelves attached to walls.

In order to avoid the payment, people put their food on planks that hung from the ceiling, thereby creating America's first tax shelter.

A few blocks away is the Pena-Peck House, which takes its name from two of its previous owners.  A royal treasurer of Spain, Juan Esteban de Pena and Seth Peck, who was a local doctor in the mid 1800s.  These days, it's the home of the women’s exchange shop.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The women’s exchanges were started in the middle of the 1800s for women who had fallen on difficult times, wanted to earn some extra money and didn't want to anybody to know about it.  They'd make something in their home.  Something of quality.  Food, a sweater, a quilt.  And the store would sell it. When the store got the money, it would deliver it to the women at home, and no one was the wiser.  Today, there are still 27 women’s exchanges operating in the United States.

The one here in St. Augustine also earns funds by renting out their garden for parties.  Particularly those parties where a woman exchanges vows.  

Perhaps I should keep my day job. 

Tourism in St. Augustine goes back to the 1820s. Because there were no hotels visitors stayed in rooming houses. Running a rooming house was one of the few socially acceptable businesses for a proper lady.

One of the oldest rooming houses is the Ximenez-Fatio house which was opened by Miss Louisa Fatio in 1855.Guy Tillis took me on a tour of the building.   

GUY TILLIS ON CAMERA: The most important room in a boarding house was the dining room.  The reason being, your reputation was made or broken by how good the food was.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: My life story

GUY TILLIS ON CAMERA: Three meals were laid out a day.  The large meal was a midday meal.  Leftovers made into the evening meal.  The landlady charged $20 a week to stay here.  And that included three meals a day.  You know, her china was so valuable to her, she never even let it leave the dining room. It was washed in a dry skin.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And then it went right back on the table.

GUY TILLIS ON CAMERA: Right back on the table.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Amazing.  What's that?

GUY TILLIS ON CAMERA: Well, that's a spittoon.


GUY TILLIS ON CAMERA: After the evening meal, the gentlemen stayed in here smoking and drinking.  The side board doubled up as a bar.  And chewing tobacco.  You'll notice that spittoon on the floor.  A piece of oil cloth underneath for those guys with bad aim. And that ... that's a punkah.  A small slave child will pull these cords, causing the punkah or poonka to sway back and forth.  This kept the flies off the food. Hopefully

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  Boy if that didn't give you a headache, nothing will.

GUY TILLIS ON CAMERA: This house was purchased in 1939 by the National Society of Colonial Dames of America and the State of Florida.  In fact, this is their State House for the Florida Society.  They stress the importance of lifestyle.  Consequently, it looks like people have just checked in and gone for a stroll.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And left their mattress out here.

GUY TILLIS ON CAMERA: Well, just like today, you prepare a room for a new guest.  Weather permitting, airing the feather mattress out on the railing.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Feathers in here?

GUY TILLIS ON CAMERA: Well, you'd better believe it.  If it was moss, that's where you'd get bed bugs bite.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Don't let the bed bugs bite.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Don't put moss in your bed.

GUY TILLIS ON CAMERA: No, not at all.  This was a good time to tighten the ropes up on the rope bed.  Back then, they called that process straining the cords. It was a job for a nine or ten year old boy.  Rope beds are pretty basic in principle, and to tie the ropes up, you use a device called a turn key or the rope wrench. Not every household had one of these.  In fact, if you wanted to use yours, you had to go from neighbor to neighbor to locate it, because you were constantly loaning it out.  But it was very easy to operate.  You just went down to the first loop from the knot, sliding the rope into the slot and turning it as tight as you could. And then, to get it even tighter, you put it behind your leg, and then insert a peg in that hole along with the rope.  And that makes it good and tight.  You do the same thing at the opposite end using another peg.  And once you get this peg in, you can take that peg out, and just repeating the process till you got to the last hole.  And then you just re-knot the rope.  And that's where we get the old expression ...


GUY TILLIS ON CAMERA: That's right. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: And don't let the bedbugs bite.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: You learn something new every day.

GUY TILLIS ON CAMERA: And then they put the mattress right back on the bed.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: I would hope so. 

In 1821, the very same year that the United States took over St. Augustine, a ship arrived from Cuba.  And along with the passengers came a yellow fever epidemic.  But it was a strangely selective epidemic which spared most of the locals.

Word spread that St. Augustine had a particularly healthful climate. By the end of the 1800s, families were coming down from the north to spend the winter in St. Augustine.  They would stay for months hoping to avoid the illnesses associated with cold weather and regain the strength of their youth.  Three hundred years after Juan Ponce De Leon came to St. Augustine and ended up discountin' the fountain, it was going on all over again.

While I was in St. Augustine, I stayed at the Casa Monica Hotel, which has been listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.  The building is in the Moorish revival style, and it feels like Lawrence of Arabia might check in at any moment.  Those towers contain magnificent two and three story suites.  There's also a nice pool, a great bar, excellent restaurant and a feeling of late 19th century elegance. They even have a period automobile to take guests around town.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  The Casa Monica was originally opened in 1888 by Franklin Smith, who was the founder of the YMCA.  St. Augustine was known as the Newport of the south, and the rich and infamous were coming down by the car load.  The Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Dupont’s, all that pre-dot.com money. Well, Henry, Andrew and John D. are no longer around, and the dots are looking a little blurry.  But it's still a great place to hang out, and quite classy. 

Tonight, the local Chaines des Rotisseurs is holding in a dinner in the hotel's restaurant.  It's a great honor for the restaurants and its chefs. The Chaines began in the 1200s as a guild of roasters.  Today, it's more like a social club interested in getting together and eating and drinking the best food in the neighborhood.  Chef Nyfeler prepared a nine course tasting menu using Florida’s gastronomic history for his inspiration. 

When the Spanish explorers arrived in the new world, they discovered dozens of foods that were completely new to them, one of which was the tomato. Tomatoes were originally cultivated by the ancient Aztecs and Incas, and they'd been around for at least a thousand years before the European explorers began eating them.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: When tomatoes first arrived in Europe, they were known as love apples, because they looked a little like an apple and had a reputation as an aphrodisiac. The Italians, the Spanish and the Portuguese got 'em right into their cooking.  But the English, who had a kind of an iffy reputation as lovers, decided that they were poisonous and used them only as ornamental plants.  And that was true here in the colonies until the early 1800s, when the Creoles in Louisiana began to put tomatoes into their gumbos and jambalayas.  And at the same time, the sailors in Maine began to put tomatoes into their fish stews. 

Today, the most popular tomatoes in the United States come fresh from Florida.  Each year, Florida dedicates almost 35,000 acres of prime land to growing them. 

About one and a half billion pounds of tomatoes are produced and then shipped throughout the country.  Florida tomatoes grew up in a warm and sunny climate, and they like that kind of environment.  So, don't put them in your refrigerator.  Once a tomato is brought below 55 degrees Fahrenheit, it permanently loses the enzymes that create the flavor. The water inside begins to expand.  The cell walls burst, and the texture becomes mealy.  And store them stem side up.  That's the way they grew.  And like most of us, they don't enjoy standing on their heads.  I asked Rene Nyfeler, who is the executive chef at the Casa Monica, to whip up a few of his favorite dishes that use fresh Florida tomatoes.

His first dish was based on a stack of sliced tomatoes.  When you're cutting a tomato, the best tool is a serrated knife with a scalloped edge and a two pronged tip.  Serrated knives are used to cut things that are hard on the outside and soft on the inside.

The resistant skin of the tomato is cut without crushing the tender flesh that's beneath.  And the two prongs help you transfer the slices.  A slice of tomato goes onto a plate.  And a slice of mozzarella cheese.  That's followed by more tomato slices and more cheese, until the entire tomato is reassembled.    A few sprigs of basil, some oil, a little balsamic vinegar and some salt.

At the end of this program, I'll tell you how to get the recipes for all of the dishes in this series.  The second dish was orrechiette pasta with tomatoes, shrimp, mussels and scallops.  Tomato slices go onto the plate.  Then the pasta.  Croutons topped with a puree of tomatoes.  Finally, the dish is garnished with fresh herbs, a little oil and some sliced basil.

Rene's third dish was a ratatouille and grilled tomato sandwich.  Piece of toast goes onto the place, followed by a few slices of grilled tomato.  And a cup of ratatouille, which is a French vegetable stew.  A hit of sour cream, a little balsamic vinegar, a second piece of bread, and a garnish of fresh herbs.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: One thing about tomatoes that is particularly important to me is that they are high in potassium.  And potassium can help reduce high blood pressure.  About 30 percent of the US population suffers from high blood pressure, and that includes me.  Scientists are also telling us that tomatoes have a powerful antioxidant which may be a cancer blocker, and can help reduce the negative effects of aging.  It could end up that the Fountain of Youth is right smack in the middle of a Florida tomato.

The explorers found many foods that were new to them in the new world, but they also brought in foods that were new to the new world.  The Arabs introduced citrus to Spain during the 700s, and the Spanish introduced it to Florida.  Today, Florida is the nation's largest producer of citrus, accounting for more than 80 percent of the nation's annual production.  And when it comes to grapefruit, Florida is the world's leading producer, responsible for one out of every three grapefruits on the planet.

Florida is among the top agricultural states in the nation, and the leading farming state in the southeast.  But it's not just citrus.  During North America's winter months of January, February and March, Florida becomes a giant vegetable patch providing about 80 percent of the nation's fresh vegetables.

It was also the first place in the new world to raise cattle.  The Spanish brought in the first cattle and set up the first ranches during the mid-1500s.  Today, Florida is the second largest ranching state in the United States.  And when it comes to seafood, Florida fishing boats bring in their catch from the Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.

I asked chef Tom McGinty, who writes a monthly column for Florida Living Magazine, to cook us a recipe using as many fresh from Florida foods as he could.  He decided on a seafood gumbo.  Butter is melted in a sauté pan.  Diced onions go in, diced celery and diced green pepper. 

A little stirring and a little chopped garlic.  All that sweats together, along with the chef.  A roux is made by cooking equal parts of oil and flour together until the mixture is dark brown.  And the vegetables get mixed into the roux.  A batch of gumbo seasoning is added.

A sauce pan of fish stock is heated.  The roux and the vegetable mixture is whisked in.  Then, chopped tomato, fresh tomato sauce, hot pepper sauce, Florida grouper, scallops, shrimp, oysters and crab meat.  A taste, a slight adjustment to the seasoning, into a bowl and it's ready to garnish.  Scallions, chopped tomato, shrimp, scallops and dried thyme.

While I was in St. Augustine, I ate my way through town, and there were three places that were lots of fun.  And I suggest you don't miss 'em.  The first is just across the Bridge of Lions from downtown and it's called O’Steens.  Now, you know that this is a local favorite, because half the town seems to be sitting out front waiting for a table.  And it's worth the wait.  The every day special that's famous throughout these parts is the deep fried butterflied shrimp.  It comes with hush puppies and two sides.  My choice was home made cole slaw and pickled cucumbers.

It was a terrific sweet potato casserole. Fresh white corn and home made corn bread.  You should also try the Minorcan clam chowder.  The other spot I thought had lots of local flavor was the Spanish bakery just off Saint George Street.  For under $5, I got home made soup or gumbo, a drink, fresh bread and a cookie.

Breads, cookies and empanadas are baked right there.  We all ate outside at a picnic table.  Easy, fun, inexpensive.  My kind of place.  And first dessert, Kilwan’s.  This is where the locals go to satisfy their sweet tooth.  Caramel coated apples, 11 different kinds of fudge and freshly made waffle cones that can be filled with 36 different flavors of ice cream, but not at the same time.

Another great spot is Old St. Augustine Village.  A group of ten houses, court yards and gardens that have been restored, staffed by experts in period dress and open to the public.

Old St. Augustine Village also presents authentic period music.  Today's group is called Skin and Bonz.  Well, that's a taste of the local flavors of St. Augustine, Florida.  I hope you've enjoyed it.  And I hope you will join me next time.  I'm Burt Wolf.

If you would like free copies of the recipes from this program, or hundreds of other recipes from Burt’s programs, to read his special reports from around the world and interviews with leading food authorities or to order a copy of The New Cooks’ Catalogue, a critical guide that tells you what to look for when purchasing cooking equipment and utensils, with over 1,000 color photographs and recipes, just visit Burt online at BURTWOLF.COM.