Call It Pimentón!
It's a sunny morning in the midst of the pepper harvest. Starting at dawn, groups of farmers hand pick the perfectly ripe peppers, one by one. Here, in the fields, is where my journey begins; one that will give me a first-hand glimpse into the origins, traditions and respect that is so richly deserved by one of the most authentic and emblematic products in the Spanish pantry: pimentón de la Vera.
I am accompanied on this journey through the region of la Vera by one of the top experts on pimentón and, without a doubt, one of this spice’s most ardent champions. His name is Clemente Camacho, a quality inspector from the Regulatory Board of DOP Pimentón de la Vera. Clemente tells me that his father worked on the very farm that we are visiting, called La Jara, and that at home, "He always talked about varieties of peppers, and pimentón was never in short supply in my mother’s and grandmother’s cooking". Now, decades after these childhood memories were formed, Clemente's job consists mainly of "ensuring that the entire process for making pimentón can be followed, from the fields to its regulatory labeling".
On our visit to the plantation, Clemente shows me three of the pepper varieties used to make the different types of pimentón de la Vera that are found in specialty shops in countries all over the world: Jeromín, Jaranda and Bola, which are used to make spicy, sweet and sour, and sweet pimentón.
The secret is in the smoke
The next step is absolutely crucial. The farmers themselves are responsible for drying and smoking the peppers. It is very typical for pepper growing estates to have some small, brick and tile buildings called secaderos, or drying houses. They have a square or rectangular floor plan and two levels: the lower floor houses the combustion chamber, while the peppers are placed on the upper floor, which is 2.5 meters off the ground.
The combustion is fueled with oak, Holm oak and acorn wood from the trees that grow in abundance in the area. The drying process must be slow and gentle so that the peppers maintain, or even increase their caroteneoid content. The process takes 10 to 15 days, depending on the ripeness of the peppers.
In Clemente Camacho's opinion, this drying process is the true secret to pimentón de la Vera. "There is no other product in the world that is similar. No one else has our traditional, natural drying process, which uses wood from noble trees. This process lends the final product its singular aromas and flavors, which are our finest ambassadors for international consumers".
Clemente spends the brief car ride between the La Jara farm and the town of Cuacos de Yuste commenting on the area's natural and agricultural riches: "La Vera is a very valuable area in terms of natural and agricultural wealth with fertile plains where, in addition to peppers, people grow olives, cherries, persimmons and even tobacco.
This is an area with a climate suited to agrarian activities that, more than five centuries ago, had the honor of being the first place in Europe to grow peppers, which were one of the many foods brought to the Old Continent thanks to Christopher Columbus's first journeys to America. It was Columbus himself who, in all likelihood, brought the first pepper seeds (Capsicum annuum) to the monks at the monasterio de Guadalupe (monastery) in 1493. The next stop was the Hieronymite monastery at Yuste, also in Extremadura. From here, pepper cultivation extended throughout Spain and Portugal. The next destination was India, where they were very successfully cultivated, and then on to China, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Ottoman Empire, from which they made their way to the Balkans and Hungary. Conclusion: Spain was the source of the pepper's international expansion.
The conversation with Clemente takes a momentary turn away from the past to the present: "There are currently a good number of companies inscribed in the DOP (Protected Denomination of Origin) that are dedicated to the final stage of the pimentón-making process: its grinding and sale – through sixteen different brand names – many of which export.
At that moment, Clemente parks the car at the door of one of these companies, Hijos de Salvador López, which is headed by sisters Raquel and Alicia López. They inherited the company from their father and are responsible for giving it its international scope, as well as creating the corporate brand – developing an attractive packaging design and a new brand, Las Hermanas, that combine equal parts tradition and fun. Alicia explains that their international expansion involves "introducing ourselves in more markets with a very carefully tended, high-quality product that is backed by both our company history and DOP Pimentón de la Vera, and directed at final consumers".
Savoring the pimentón
My journey to the origins of this oh-so Spanish spice concludes at a fascinating place: the sixteenth-century former palace of the Count and Countess of Oropesa in the town of Jarandilla de la Vera, which currently houses one of the most beautiful establishments in the network of Spanish Paradores (a national hotel chain). Here we are greeted with a menu that pays homage to pimentón, while also highlighting other top-notch ingredients from Extremadura: appetizers in the way of tapas like the migas with quail eggs, honey-battered eggplant and toast with torta del Casar, the region's most celebrated cheese. Then, a first course of patatas revolconas with octopus and pimentón, followed by a traditional stew of Extremeñan goat, with a touch of pimentón. For dessert, a real surprise: fresh goat’s cheese with quince paste and pimentón ice cream. The synthesis of the creamy texture of the ice cream, its refreshing temperature and the smoky aromas of the pimentón, leave me with a memorable souvenir of this trip to the origins of this unique spice.