The nation’s oldest city has a fresh take on food.
St. Augustine, founded in 1565, is attracting food lovers for its farm-to-table cuisine and agritourism opportunities.
From the city’s signature Minorcan clam chowder, to the blast of flavor from its prized datil peppers, to the harvests of nearby farms, the food scene showcases Florida’s history and diversity with modern twists.
While the skyline is punctuated by historic structures such as the Castillo de San Marcos fort, Flagler College and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, the restaurants, markets and nearby farms also reflect the area’s rich and vibrant past.
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The menu at Catch 27, for example, showcases fish and seafood from Florida’s first coast and inland waters. From clams to black drum, chefs Mallory Byrne and Josh Smith are tweaking elements of a centuries-old cuisine with 21st century cooking techniques. The menu’s rustic fish, for example, is a simple combination of local catch, coarse sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper topped with a lemon garlic compound butter.
“We get our eggs and produce from the local farmers market and our seafood is from right off the coast,” she said. “A lot of people come here for the obvious historic sites and architecture but restaurants are illuminating other aspects of history. The melting pot of ingredients and flavors that is a result of St. Augustine’s resilience.”
A more subtle reminder is just outside the city limits at Maggie’s Herb Farm on a stretch of land near the St. Johns River. Dora Baker is the owner with the green thumb and encyclopedic memory for aromatic plants. Her farm cultivates more than 100 types of herbs, succulents and flowering perennials as well as an heirloom variety of St. Augustine’s famous datil hot pepper.
Depending on the season, there’s a sweet fragrance to the air here as you walk by fresh mint, rosemary, lavender and sage. Visitors come for the plants and an education in native species, and Baker’s anecdotal cooking tips and creative uses for fresh herbs.
“We’re history, too,” says Baker. “Among the plants we grow are varieties that would have been familiar to explorers and early settlers.”
Other places to seek out indigenous edibles include the Old City Farmers Market (http://staugustinefm.com) on Saturday mornings at the St. Augustine Amphitheater and the St. Augustine Beach Wednesday Farmers and Crafts Market (http://thecivicassociation.org) at Pier Park.
At the annual Taste of St. Augustine, festivalgoers can sample foods from more than 30 local eateries on April 23. New this year is the “Taste Academy” (April 20-23), in which participants can learn about local food sources, food trends and St. Augustine’s rich culinary history in classes, demonstrations and tastings set up throughout St. Johns County.
In the kitchen at The Floridian restaurant, chef Genie McNally focuses on regionally inspired Southern cuisine. Her menu is annotated with local farms she has curated to bring her vision from the farm to the table.
It’s the norm rather than a trend to have customers seeking out local fare, says McNally. “It gives them a better sense of place. And for us it’s just the right thing to do.”
When the first Europeans arrived in here in the 16th century, the indigenous people were fishing, raising livestock and farming corn, beans and squash. The crop expectations for the colony were disappointing and often disastrous but citrus and more thrived. Ancient crops such as olive trees are now making a comeback with a potential commercial future.
St. Augustine is peppered with historical markers, rugged ruins and reminders of Florida’s past. But its modern food ways also tell a story of culture and perseverance.
Going to St. Augustine
What: Discovered in 1565, the nation’s oldest city offers an array of historic diversions, including the Castillo de San Marcos, the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum, the Fort Matanzas National Monument, the Lightner Museum and more.
Getting there: St. Augustine is in St. Johns County on Florida’s East Coast, 43 miles southeast of Jacksonville and 53 miles north of Daytona Beach. It’s easily accessible from Interstate 95.
Information: 800-653-2489, www.floridashistoriccoast.com
Catch 27: Serving fresh seafood from the nation’s 27th state at 40 Charlotte St., St Augustine; 904-217-3542; www.catchtwentyseven.com.
Florida Agricultural Museum: Interactive education and entertainment site preserving the state’s farming history at 7900 Old Kings Road North, Palm Coast; 386-446-7630; http://floridaagmuseum.org.
Maggie’s Herb Farm: Organic nursery and retail market at 11400 County Road 13 South, St. Augustine; 904-829-0722; maggiesherbfarm.com
The Floridian: Serving home-style Southern comfort fare at 72 Spanish St., St Augustine; 904-829-0655; thefloridianstaug.com
Taste of St. Augustine: Local restaurant showcase from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. April 23; St. Augustine Amphitheatre, 1340 A1A South, St. Augustine; $5 plus $1 taste tickets; epicbh.org
Florida’s Birding & Photo Fest: Includes insights from top nature and wildlife photographers April 27-May 1; GTM Research Reserve Environmental Education Center, 505 Guana River Road, Ponte Vedra Beach; floridasbirdingandphotofest.com
Gamble Rogers Music Festival: A celebration of Americana music April 29- May 1; various venues; gamblerogersfest.org
Great American Burgerfest: Food and music festival May 20-22; Francis Field, 25 W. Castillo Drive (next to the visitors center); $5 greatamericanburgerfest.com
Music by the Sea Concert Series: Ongoing events paired with local eateries 6-9 p.m. Wednesdays; May 11-Oct. 12; free; St. Johns County Pier, 350 A1A Beach Blvd, St. Augustine; thecivicassociation.org