Pimenton-Spanish Smoked Paprika
Another article rescued from the old website. We always have a few tins of Pimenton de La Vera at home, it has nothing to do with other Pimentones that you can find. Give it a try.
Columbus carried chile peppers to Spain from the New World on his second trip in 1493, but who first used the pods for flavoring food? José Guerra, writing in “Foods from Spain News,” speculates that monks at the Monastery of Guadalupe in Extremadura were the first Europeans to discover the flavour–and heat–of chiles by crushing them and adding them to their soups. This theory agrees with that of food historians, who believe that chiles initially were grown in monasteries and the seeds were spread throughout Spain and Europe first by travelling monks and then by Spanish and Portuguese traders, who introduced them into Africa, India, and Asia. Within a hundred years after Columbus brought them to Spain, chile peppers had circumnavigated the globe and spiced up numerous regional cuisines.
But what happened to the chiles in Spain? Why didn’t the cuisine of Spain become fired up like that of India, or even Hungary? No one knows for certain. As in Italy, there are a few hot and spicy dishes in Spain, but chiles did not dominate the cuisine–except in one part of Extremadura in the far west, the same region where they were first introduced. That hotbed of chiles is the valley of La Vera, where the pimientos (chiles) are grown and smoked to make the famous spice Pimentón de la Vera.
Some sources speculate that the pimentón tradition in La Vera was started by another group of monks from the Yuste Monastery in Caceres in the sixteenth century. According to Janet Mendel, author of Traditional Spanish Cooking, when the Spanish emperor Charles V abdicated the throne of Spain in 1555 and retired to the Yuste monastery, he loved pimentón immensely. He recommended it to his sister, Queen Mary of Hungary, and that is how paprika became popular in that country.
The Yuste monks, over the centuries, shared their secrets of growing and processing the chiles with local farmers. But it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that the farmers began growing their pimientos on a large scale and processing them into pimentón. These days, pimentón is the region’s main source of income.
Growing and Smoking the Pimientos
In early March, farmers germinate the seeds and grow seedlings in greenhouses. They are transplanted to the fields in May. Some of the fields are so remote that they are not accessible to tractors and other farm equipment, so farmers use mule labor to prepare the fields, and ride mules to the fields to remove weeds by hand. In all the fields, the crop is picked by hand in October when all the pods are bright red but still pliable. In eastern Spain, where it is drier, the pods can be dried in the sun. But in Extremadura, fall rains raise the humidity to the level where the pods would rot or mold. So in the La Vera valley, they are placed in burlap sacks and then loaded on flatbed trucks that haul them to the drying buildings.
The pimientos are slowly dried over smoldering pedunculate or holm oak logs for ten to fifteen days and are hand-turned twice a day before they are ready to be processed into pimentón. The smoke-dried pods are then ground into powder (the pimentón) and packed in bulk containers. The majority of the pimentón goes to the sausage factories, where it is used to spice up, flavor, and brighten up the famous Spanish chorizo. But it is also packed in tins for the consumer market. There are three varieties of pimentón–sweet (dulce), hot (picante), and bittersweet (agridulce).
Pimentón de la Vera was the first chile pepper product to be granted a Denominacíon de Origen, or controlled name status. Controlled name status means that other varieties of pimientos cannot be called pimentón, and that consumers are guaranteed that the product is made in the same, time-honored manner. Look for the letters “D.O.” on any product labeled as pimentón.
Sweet pimentón is great for flavoring potatoes, rice, and fish recipes, while the traditional bittersweet, smoky variety is used as a flavoring for smoked meats and in beans, game dishes, and stews. The hot type is used in winter soups, chorizo, and Galician pulpo, or octopus. The octopus is boiled and sliced, then sprinkled with olive oil, salt, and hot pimentón powder. Interestingly, there are recipes for chorizo and potato stews that utilize all three of the types ofpimentón. Substitutions for pimentón include hot paprika and New Mexican ground red chile, but for a better approximation of the smokiness of the pimentón, mix in some ground chipotle chile.
Hot pimentón can be substituted for any recipe calling for paprika or ground red chile. Chili con carne enthusiasts should experiment with pimentón in their never-ending quest to improve their chili.