In western Spain, in Extremadura, from where many of the conquistadors of the New World departed, there grows a type of pepper that, ground into a powder, probably is the favorite spice in all of Spanish cooking.
The spice is called pimenton. While, at first glance, you might think it’s just paprika, Spanish pimenton has its differences. Think of it as paprika’s hot-blooded relative.
“My veins run with pimenton, not blood,” declares Jesus-Maria Fernandez, a former president of the Pimenton de la Vera producers’ cooperative, who has spent a lifetime growing peppers and making pimenton.
While pimenton is made in several areas, the pimenton from La Vera is special, with a haunting smokiness that comes from being dried over smoldering wild oak.
In eastern Spain, where pimenton also is produced, the hot, dry Mediterranean climate allows the peppers to be sun-dried. But in La Vera, early autumn rains when the peppers ripen make sun-drying impossible.
That’s why, Fernandez says, the La Vera peppers are smoked. A brilliant solution! The slow smoking fixes the natural carotenoid pigments of the peppers, producing an intensely red spice. It also adds an ineffable natural smokiness that complements many foods.
Pimenton is produced from the capsicum annuum pepper, the chile pepper discovered by Columbus on his first trip to the New World. He was looking for the “Indies,” the source of “pepper,” pimienta in Spanish. When he found the hot-tasting capsicum, Columbus called it pimiento, from which comes pimenton.
Columbus carried peppers and other New World fruits back to Spain, where they were cultivated by monks in various abbeys. The Hieronymite monks at the Yuste monastery in La Vera were the first to dry the peppers and use the powder as a flavoring and food preservative.
Emperor Charles V, when he abdicated the Spanish throne in 1555 and retired to the Yuste monastery, supposedly got to like the spice (he was a notorious gourmand) and recommended it to his sister, Queen Mary of Hungary, where it became paprika.
Spanish pimenton comes in three flavors-dulce (‘sweet’), agridulce (‘bittersweet’) and picante (‘spicy hot’). Each is made from a different subspecies of pepper. Sweet pimenton, smoked or unsmoked, is the most versatile, while the bittersweet adds an interesting complexity to a dish. The spicy-hot is packed with flavor and really not at all fiery to most palates.
Pimenton de la Vera, the only pimenton with a surname, enjoys denominacion de origen designation, a guarantee of quality from the La Vera governing board. Look for D.O. numbered labels on cans or packets of the spice.
In Spain, the lion’s share of pimenton goes to the sausage-making industry. The most emblematic Spanish sausage, garlicky chorizo, is colored and flavored with it.
Pimenton is widely used in home cooking too, and not just as a sprinkle for color. Heaping tablespoons of it go into sauces, where it provides richness of flavor. In Extremadura, where La Vera pimenton is made, it is the preferred type. Elsewhere in Spain, unsmoked pimenton is used lavishly, even in paella and other rice dishes.
In my kitchen, I substitute Spanish pimenton in any recipe calling for paprika. It gives a little flamenco flounce to Hungarian goulash. I use the La Vera spice, with its earthy, smoky aroma, in barbecue sauces, marinades and spice rubs. The bittersweet version adds pizazz to beans and lentils, gratin dishes, seafood cocktail sauces. The hot stuff is a wake-up call for humble deviled eggs or potato salad.
Stir pimenton into a little water and blend it smooth before adding to a sauce. As with paprika, take care not to scorch the pimenton, lest it becomes bitter. If using pimenton on barbecued food, add it during the last few minutes of grilling so that it doesn’t burn.