Extremadura region of Spain produces famed smoked paprika

 

Visiting Spain:  Extremadura region of Spain produces famed smoked paprika

When Christopher Columbus returned to Spain from his second voyage to the Americas, he brought a very special chili pepper that he served to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

Even though the unusual plant was a bit spicy for the royal tongues, Spanish monks recognized its tasty value and jealously guarded the culinary treasure behind cloistered walls. However, the secret began to slowly leak out.

Today, the pepper used for paprika and the smoky process that creates its distinctive taste have combined for a staple in many cooks’ kitchens. In the Extremadura region of Spain, the traditional paprika recipe has become one of the area’s main sources of wealth and worldwide renown.

“The difference in our paprika,” said Carmen Jimenez, “is that we don’t dry the peppers in the sun or in industrial ovens. We smoke the peppers over an oak wood fire and that’s what gives the paprika its smoky taste. We are the only place in the world where paprika is made that way.”

On a tour through the Pimentón de la Vera Museum in Cáceres, museum director Carmen Jimenez walked us through the history of paprika and its uses. Until I visited Extremadura, my poor paprika had sat like red dust in my kitchen spice drawer.

Sure, I would bring out the can once in a while to sprinkle some red powder over deviled eggs or potato salad. But I used it purely as a color accent. To me, paprika didn’t seem to have any taste.

Then I encountered true smoky Spanish paprika and, oh, my, the difference.

The secret, along with the drying process, is the marvelous growing weather in the valley of de la Vera, Jimenez said. Seedlings are transplanted in May just in time for spring rains and sunshine. In October, the sun-ripened peppers are handpicked by local farmers just as they were by monks back in the 16th century.

FAMOUS SMOKING PROCESS

The peppers are slowly bathed in oak wood smoke for 10 to 15 days in the upper level of smokehouses. The peppers are patiently turned by hand each day for ideal dryness. In old days, Jimenez said, farmers would sleep nude around the smokehouse fires.

“Then, when they began to get cold, they knew it was time to put more wood on the fire for the peppers,” she said.

The plump peppers are dried down by almost 75 percent in the smoking process. The next step is to remove the stems and seeds before the peppers are ground in a stone mill.

“That is very important, that they are ground in a stone mill,” Jimenez said. Traditional stone wheels are used so that friction doesn’t create heat that would strip some of that deep paprika flavor.

To see that final step, we visited the Union of Producers of Paprika factory where the peppers are processed. The factory is open to visitors and is a great place to buy inexpensive colorful tins of paprika in a small window shop.

The end result is what the locals call “red gold.” Pimentón or smoked paprika comes in three versions, with varying levels of heat depending upon the particular chilies used. Dulce or sweet is slightly sweet with very little heat; agridulce or bittersweet has only a trace of sweetness with an underlying heat; and picante is hot.

I generally don’t care for hot spices but the picante doesn’t seem hot to me, just a bit spicier with a deeper taste. If you are not familiar with Spanish smoked paprika, it might be best to taste it or try it slightly in dishes until you discover the level you like.

Be sure to look for the brick-red paprika that has “Consejo Regulation Denominación de Origen” or D.D:Pimenón de la Vera somewhere on the container. That is the Spanish government’s assurance that the paprika was made in La Vera.

For my trip home, I had 15 tins of La Vera paprika safely tucked in my carry-on luggage for family and friends. Going through security at the Madrid airport for my flight back home, the security officer just smiled when he saw my paprika tins.

Turns out, his hometown was Jaraiz de la Vera and he certainly knew a good thing when he saw it. Glad I have finally discovered Spanish smoked paprika and added its distinctive taste to my home.

-Story and Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch

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