This is Florida’s quincentenary. In 1513 Ponce de Leon launched his quest to discover the fountain of youth. Five hundred years later, Florida’s a year round haven for millions. Yet for much of Florida’s history, and its oldest city, St. Augustine, it’s a story of indentured servants, soldiers, seekers of a new life or a fortune all blending some of the world’s best cuisines. In three and a half hours, City Walks Savory Faire – A Food Tour with Taste, will table hop to five restaurants offering an edible history lesson.
Allen’s a relaxed and knowledgeable guide who definitely enjoys his work. Of course preparing rotating tours among a couple dozen restaurants in City Walk’s available pool allows for food tour variations and a opportunity to taste more of history. What’s not to enjoy.
Heading towards Plaza de Constitution, built in 1573 by Spanish royal command, Allen points out the staggering 1888 red and cream brick Spanish Revival main building of Flagler College. Celebrating its 125th anniversary, this palace was once the Hotel Ponce de Leon, flagship of oil, railroad and real estate tycoon Henry Flagler’s Florida empire. Open only in the winter, guests booked rooms for the entire season at a cost in 2013 dollars of $250,000. Multi course meals were served in the dining hall surrounded by the world’s largest collection of Tiffany windows. Today’s collage students dine in the same room, perhaps not on as many courses.
At the Athena Cafe, kouroenemea wine is served with classic saganaki. The ignited brandy sends up a dramatic flame and caramelizes the sautéed kasseri cheese, adding sweet to salty. A dramatic presentation whose taste matches the hints of tar and raisins in the wine. A traditional gyro with flavorful grilled meat on homemade thin greek pita bread is topped with bright lettuce, tomatoes and onions. A fresh tangy tzatziki sauce is off to the side.
Pizzalley’s Chianti Room served fresh pasta with a datil pepper spicy marinara sauce. Datil peppers grow best in St. Augustine and are an ingredient in many dishes including famous Minorcan clam chowder. The chianti, of course, was crisp and dry. Known equally for their pizzas, Pizzalley’s use of the datil peppers are a food marker in St. Augustine culinary history.
Indentured servants were an important component, along with slaves, in 18th century Florida. Scots investor, Dr. Andrew Turnbull, contracted Italian, Greek and Minorcan men and families to settle and work his vast land grant, New Smyrna, south of St. Augustine. A number of marriages occurred among the 1400 indentured to Dr. Turnbull. Rough conditions and politics led to a breakdown of the plantation yet this community of Mediterranean cultures, with their interlocking cuisines, became a fixture in St. Augustine.
La Pentola, is southern Spanish Florida dining that can be imagined to have occurred many times over the past 500 years. On an enclosed tree shaded terrace, sipping a crisp white wine, a dish of ricotta & mozzarella cheese ravioli napped with a sherry cream sauce, sweet peas, sun dried tomatoes & shiitake mushrooms has taken the groups’ attention. It has depth, the earthy shiitakes offering a foil to the cream. A plate of sautéed shrimp with garlic, olive oil, red pepper flakes and herbs defines the Mediterranean meets Florida marriage these three restaurants represent.
Vino Del Grotto continues the tradition of small stores in an historic city of the type that’s always been the fabric of the economy. On Saint George St, the small shop packs a fine selection of European and local wines. Suitable to a sub-tropical climate, they bottle their own blend of fruit smooth mixes and fruit wines that combined with crushed ice rival a frozen margarita and have fresh fruit tastes. Wine tastings are available during normal business hours.
The first thing you notice when you walk into Meehan’s Irish Pub & Seafood House are the autographed Jamison whiskey bottles that line the rafters of the bar. What started as a casual gesture has turned into a tradition, if the table finishes the bottle. Meehan’s personifies the centuries old Spanish-Irish Catholic alliance that thwarted British attempts to control Florida. Many St. Augustine families have Irish roots from these days. Meehan’s is adept serving superb traditional beef and stout pie and thin sliced corned beef in a crispy turnover variation as it is smothering a fresh mahi-mahi in a shrimp wine sauce and drawing a pint of Guinness. A glass of Fox Hollow chardonnay binds the coasts and traditions.
Fudge Buckets is 21st century St. Augustine. Entrepreneurs with an itch, good idea, recipes and passion still drive economies. Fudge Buckets ice creams and fudge are made small batch and one site. What started as a side business selling at farmers markets and fairs has expanded to an attractive shop in the historic core. A hook, besides their handy single serving buckets, is the Fudge Bucket sundae where an ice cream is paired with a fudge. The fudge is quickly melted and poured over the ice cream.
Many combinations can be made out of orange cream or peanut butter fudge over triple chocolate or rum raisin ice cream. More exotic pairings are possible as well. Maple, pepper, bacon fudge over coffee ice cream was like breakfast in a cup. Fudge Buckets is now offering a line of sandwiches but with everything in a freshly made savory cone.
Allen says, “History brings people to St. Augustine; food brings them back.” Yet there’s more to enjoying food than just eating. City Walks adds another sensory layer in understanding the back story. City walks has tours featuring St. Augustine pubs, ghosts, chocolate and mayhem that should cover anything of importance in the first 500 years.
City Walks, 4 Granada Street, St. Augustine, FL 32084 1-800-797-3778