Spanish Paprika - the serious business of Pimenton

by Neil Morris

Neil Morris explains why you should never underestimate the significance of paprika in Spanish cooking...

I love the taste of paprika and so do the Spanish! Paprika is known in Spain as pimentón and is one of the most important and widely used ingredients in Spanish cuisine.

There are many different varieties of paprika including sweet, bittersweet, hot and smoked, each with their own distinctive smell and taste, and they are used to flavour and colour a myriad of Spanish recipes.

"If you are serious about Spanish cooking, you need to get serious about paprika!"

So, what is Spanish Paprika or Pimentón?

Pimentón is made by finely grinding various dried capsicum peppers; varieties that are used include nora, bola, jaranda, jariza, jeromin, chili, ocal and bell. They are often dried by smoking and the smoke-flavoured variety is the most distinctive and widely-used type of paprika in Spain.

Spanish paprika is made to a very high standard and, just like wine, has its own Denominaciónes de Origen (D.Os) which ensure that the paprika is produced to certain strict guidelines.

There are two D.Os; the first and most famous of which is in Cáceres in the region of Extremadura. This is the original home of Spanish paprika and it was first introduced here over 500 years ago when it was brought back from the Americas by Christopher Columbus.

The other D.O is in the region of Murcia - known as the 'garden kingdom' - where the conditions are perfect for growing peppers.

la-chinata-paprika

As with many ingredients introduced to Spain from the Americas, it was the monks who pioneered the growing, drying and milling techniques of the peppers.

In Extremadura, the monks from the Monastery of Guadalupe in Cáceres first started cultivating the peppers and the production process was further developed by the Monastery of Yuste in La Vera. By the 17th century paprika production had grown to an industrial scale.

In La Vera, the peppers are dried in split-level smoke houses. On the lower level oak or holm oak wood is burnt to create smoke that rises to the upper level where the peppers are laid on racks and turned on a daily basis for up to two weeks until dry. This smoking process gives Pimentón de la Vera an unmistakable aroma that has blessed Spanish cuisine for centuries.

The popularity of paprika amongst the Monks soon spread to the to the Monastery of Ñora in Murcia where Paprika production also began with a passion.

In Murcia, the long, hot sunshine continues well into the Autumn when the peppers are harvested; this means the peppers can be dried naturally in the sunshine. As a result the traditional paprika of the Murcia D.O has its own distinctive flavour.

Once dried, the peppers from both regions follow a similar milling process; the peppers are taken to paprika mills, the stalks and unwanted parts are removed and the peppers are ground very slowly to avoid spoiling the flavour and colour of the paprika. Once milled the paprika is normally sold in small tins.

The different types of Spanish Paprika?

There are many different types of Spanish paprika; they are either dried ahumado using the traditional oak or holm oak wood smoking methods used in La Vera, Extremadura, or sun-dried, which is the traditional method used in Murcia. Smoked brands of paprika will often display the words 'De La Vera' on their labels, indicating their provenance.

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