It’s the spice that makes chorizo red, stews hearty, bravas sauce spicy, Galician octopus smokey and mojo picón sauce fiery. Pimentón, aka Spanish paprika, is as fundamental to Spanish cooking as black pepper is to the kitchens across the US.
But it wasn’t always that way…
Spaniards have Christopher Columbus, a convent of monks and some funky Spanish soil to thank for the classic pop of red and punch of flavor that is now so engrained in Spanish cuisine. Five hundred years ago, pimentón was half a world away from the cuisine it has now come to define.
Paprika’s Maiden Voyage
The fields of Peru and southern Mexico have been scattered with the capsicum annuum, the peppers used to make paprika, for more than 2,000 years. But it wasn’t until Columbus returned from the Americas in 1493, ships laden with all kinds of new flavors, that these now iconic peppers made it to Europe. Once they got here, they spread like wildfire.
Traders brought the peppers from Spain into the Ottoman Empire in Turkey. Turkish immigrants then took them north through the Balkans and finally to Hungary, where paprika is still to this day a staple of Hungarian cuisine.
While paprika was exploding across Europe, in Spain the peppers stayed put. In fact, they barely ventured outside the confines of a single monastery, the Yuste Monastery of Jeronimos monks in the southwestern Spanish province Extremadura. Half a millennium later, the same order of monks is still making some of the most coveted pimentón in all of Spain.
Spanish Paprika’s Secret Recipe
Spanish paprika is unlike any other. Hungarian paprika is often known for its sweetness while Spanish paprika is loved for its smokiness. From the type of peppers to the smoking and milling methods, the recipe for making Spanish pimentón has been guarded for hundreds of years.
Paprika is so vital to Spanish cuisine that its production is regulated by quality-control Denomination of Origin boards. There are two main paprika making regions in Spain, La Vera in Extremadura and Murcia. Both regions have are under D.O. control to ensure that the centuries-old process of growing, smoking and grinding the peppers is precisely followed.
1. Pimentón de la Vera
Arguably the most popular type of Spanish paprika is that from La Vera, a Spanish county in Extremadura less than 100 miles from the Portuguese border. This is where the Jeronimos monks first created the characteristic technique for making Spanish paprika, a technique that is still used to this day.
In 2008, this region produced more than 2,760 tons of paprika using this ancient process.
Every year, more than 1,000 hectares (nearly 2,500 acres) are planted with peppers. The unique soil and climate of La Vera makes the peppers high in carotene, which gives them their iconic bold red color. From mid September through late October scores of harvesters pick the long, thin peppers by hand.
They are then slowly smoked in a specially designed wood and brick smokehouse for ten to 15 days. A small oak wood fire constantly simmers meters below the floorboards, gently drying the peppers and giving them their defining smokey flavor.
Four different classes of pepper are used to produce pimentón de la Vera. Three (Jaranda, Jariza, Jeromín) come from the Ocales variety, which is known for it’s spectacular deep red color. Bola, the fourth variety, was spicy 500 years ago when Columbus brought it to Spain but the climate and soil here have made Bolas loose all of their capsaicin, the component which makes peppers hot.
How these peppers are dried and mixed determines how spicy the paprika is. Pimentón de la Vera comes in three types:
- Picante (spicy), which is made from the spiciest Jeromín peppers
- Agridulce (bittersweet), made from the mild and beautifully bright red Jaranda and Jariza peppers
- Dulce (sweet), made from brilliantly red Jaranda peppers and sweet Bola peppers
Jeronimos monks from Extremadura brought their paprika-making secrets across the peninsula to another monastery of Jeronimos monks in Murcia. Over the years though, both the process and the peppers themselves have changed drastically.
Murcia uses only one type of pepper, the sweet Bola pepper. The growing conditions in Murcia have drastically changed this pepper from the long, thin, spicy pepper of South America to the sweet, round, bell pepper-like version now used in Murcian pimentón.
The peppers are picked by hand and dried in the sun or in warm air driers over several days. They are not smoked like in La Vera. Murcia produces about half as much paprika as in La Vera. About 1,350 tons of Murcia’s uniquely sweet paprika went to markets in Spain and abroad in 2014.
Spanish paprika forms the base of many of the country’s stewed, roasted and boiled dishes. One of the most popular ways to add a burst of flavor to nearly any Spanish dish is with a sofrito, a sauce of olive oil, shaved garlic and pimentón. Sofritos are stirred into stews, beans and even some paellas. I like to add a tomato or two and drizzle it over green beans or boiled potatoes.
Much of Spain’s paprika goes to making some of my favorite meats in all of Spanish cuisine: chorizo and sobrassada. Depending on the region, chorizo can be made with either sweet or spicy paprika. The ground pork is heavily doused with pimentón, garlic and salt before being stuffed into casings and lightly smoked for about two weeks.
Sobrassada is very similar to chorizo in flavor, but a beast all its own in texture. Instead of being cured and sliced into think medallions like its hardened cousin, sobrassada is spreadable! The punchy smokiness of the paprika-heavy sobrassada is often served with a sweet drizzle of local honey atop toasted bread. Sobrassada, which is from the Balearic Island of Mallorca, is often made with a paprika produced on the island called pimentón tap de cortí.
Spanish paprika is also commonly sprinkled atop many of Spain’s classic dishes like Galician-style octopus (which is boiled, sliced and topped with olive oil, salt and pimentón) and lacón (thin-shaved roasted ham).
What is your favorite way to use Spanish paprika?