St. Augustine, FL was founded by the Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles on September 8, 1565. St. Augustine was named in honor of that saint’s feast day, August 28. On that day, 700 soldiers and colonists from Spain made their first landfall. St. Augustine is the oldest continually occupied settlement in North America, and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.
Of course, as you might guess, food is a favorite subject of mine, and in St. Augustine, great food is everywhere. St. Augustine is known for continuing the food traditions of the early settlers and serving them even today. In this column, I’m featuring the Minorcans.
In 1768, some 1400 indentured colonists from the Mediterranean, mostly from Minorca, left for the New World. During the ensuing years, many of the Minorcans died from abuse, malnutrition and disease. Finally in 1777, the survivors, numbering around 600, migrated to St. Augustine, where their descendants live today. One local Minorcan family produced two of America’s outstanding poets and writers--Stephen Vincent and William Rose Benet.
The Minorcans were a laughing, singing, handsome, sturdy people, and made their mark on our culture and history. The Minorcan women, as did all pioneer women, brought with them to the New World, many memories of, and the ability to prepare the foods of their homeland. And now, over two centuries later, Minorcan food is identified as the cuisine of old St. Augustine.
Names for many of the old dishes have been lost with the passing years, but one surely survived and is as popular today as it must have been when the Minorcans carried the seeds of their beloved “Datil peppers” to their homes in the New World. That dish, most likely of Oriental origin, is pilau pronounced locally as pur-lo. It is a simple, hearty fare--a dish of meat, foul, seafood and vegetables cooked with rice and a subtle flavoring of herbs and spices.
The Minorcans, as with all other exiled and homesick groups through the ages endeavored to keep alive some of the traditions and festivals and food dishes of their homelands. The Easter Eve Fromajadas Minorcan Folk Song now lives only in legend but it does seem worth reviving and according to the scuttlebutt, it may soon happen in St. Augustine.
On the night before Easter Sunday the young men go about the city in parties serenading. Approaching the dwelling of some one whom they wish to favor with their song, or from whom they expect the favors asked in their rhyme, they knock gently upon the window. If their visit is welcome, they are answered by a knock from within, and at once begin a hymn to honor the Virgin Mary said to be sung in the Mahonese dialect. These are verses without end, each followed by a chorus. After the hymn, stanzas are sung soliciting the customary gifts of cake or eggs.
The shutters are then opened by the people within, and a supply of cakes or other pastry is dropped into a bag carried by one of the party who acknowledges the gift with another song and then departs. This song is repeated throughout the city until midnight. To the listener the music has a peculiar fascination like some of the tunes from popular operas, keeping one awake to listen to its strains, even after many repetitions have rendered the song monotonous.
One of the most traditional and popular Minorcan foods to be found in St. Augustine is the Fromajadas Cheese Cake. It calls for “rich pastry” and is made with lard or butter. A small amount of baking powder may be used. Your favorite rich pie dough will suffice. You may add a pinch of nutmeg to the dough. Roll dough thin. Cut in rounds about the size of a saucer, or smaller. Cut a small cross on one half of each round. Grate one pound sharp aged cheese (do not use processed cheese). Beat 6 eggs and add the cheese with a pinch of salt and ? teaspoon cayenne pepper. Place a tablespoon of cheese-egg mixture on the unslashed half of round of dough. Turn slashed half over cheese. Pinch edges together carefully. Bake in a 375 degree oven until golden brown the cheese filling puffs up through the cross.