Sep 07, 2020
Pimentón de la Vera: The Spice that Revolutionized the World
We shall begin our delicious trip in La Vera, a lovely area of Extremadura where the history became oh-so colorful
Just to get situated, it was the 16th century and Christopher Columbus had just returned from his first journeys to the New World. He did so with ships filled with foods never before seen in Europe. One of them was the pepper: yes, that bright red vegetable with virtues still unknown at the time on the Old Continent.
Bringing a handful of seeds as a gift, the explorer decided in 1493 to visit the monks at the Monastery of San Jerónimo de Yuste in Extremadura. As bold as brass, they decided to mess around and experiment with those peppers in a rather peculiar way: after harvesting them, they dried, smoked and then ground them. The result? An unmistakable and genuinely artisan spice that revolutionized Spanish gastronomy forever: Pimentón de La Vera was here to stay.
THE SECRET TO THE FLAVOR
Nowadays, in order to find out about the virtues of this peculiar seasoning, all you have to do is take a trip through the region of La Vera. This beautiful corner of Extremadura, which history ended up turning into the birthplace of pimenton, was the first place in Europe where peppers were grown and continues to be an absolute vegetable patch: foods like olives, persimmons and cherries can also be found in these lands.
The month of May is when peppers become the stars in its fertile soils. Why you may ask? Because it’s sowing time.
The fields are then filled with day laborers working from sunrise to sunset taking great care of the four varieties of peppers which are typical in the area: Jaranda, Jariza, Bola and Jeromín. The fact that La Vera is sheltered by the mountains of the neighboring Sierra de Gredos and has a climate with warm springs and wet falls, the conditions are ideal for successful pepper farming.
However, fall is when harvesting ends and the most important phase in the process begins: drying - the key that transforms Pimentón de La Vera into an absolute treasure.
Near the fields are the drying chambers, small brick and tile structures divided into two floors: an oak and holm-wood fire is burnt on the bottom floor to boost the drying procedure while thousands of kilos of peppers are piled up for 10-15 days on the floor above for slow, gentle dehydration over the heat. It’s work that requires patience and care with the farmers stirring the peppers each day as they smoke.
This is when the pimentón gets all the flavor, aroma and color that have turned it into the delicatessen it’s considered to be today. The peppers get to the perfect point after this time and the pimentón, as we know it, is almost ready.
GROUNDING JUST AS WAS DONE IN THE PAST
So, what happens to the dried peppers? Well, they have to be grounded of course. And to do so, they’re taken to transformation plants: after removing the seeds and stems, the mills turn the “raw” product into that so very emblematic intense red powder found in Spanish pantries.
Yet there are two fundamental rules: on the one hand, a constant temperature must be maintained throughout the entire the process. Secondly, the grinding must be done with stones as this is the only way to get the perfect texture required by the PDO Pimentón de la Vera Regulations Board which governs 17 companies located around the region. One of three types of pimentón may be produced depending on the varieties of peppers mixed together: smoked, sweet or hot.
FROM GALICIAN OCTOPUS TO CHORIZO SAUSAGE: THE EXTENSIVE SPANISH RECIPE BOOK
Countless recipes in Spanish cuisine call for pimentón as an ingredient and more than just a few renowned chefs defend its properties across the world. Who would one of them be? The very José Pizarro, who’s Extremaduran just like pimentón!
One example of its omnipresence lies in one of the most widely-acclaimed cured meats in and outside Spain: chorizo is made with pimentón; hence the intense red color it’s known for. Of course, it’s also present in other cured meats like loin, longaniza sausages and even blood sausage.
Yet there are many traditional dishes that wouldn’t be the same without this beloved spice beginning with the famous Galician octopus: after placing a few slices of boiled potatoes on a plate along with diced octopus, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and salt, you have to sprinkle a couple of teaspoons of pimentón on top for that absolutely unmistakable taste.
Another similar suggestion would be those typical mashed potatoes with octopus which are quite popular in Extremadura and then there’s that traditional goat stew from Extremadura as well. Even one of the most authentic dishes in Spanish gastronomy, lentils, also have pimentón. And list goes on and on: the famous Canary Island mojo picón sauce, chickpea stew with chard and Madrid-style beef tripe. You can also find it in Extremadura-style breadcrumbs and pork (migas) which conquer even the most refined of palates.
In fact, this spice has become so significant in modern cuisine that it’s even featured in some of the most avant-garde creations like pimentón ice cream which can be found on many Spanish restaurant menus.
It’s just one more example of this historic spice that crossed the ocean centuries ago to revolutionize gastronomy and become one of the most highly-valued ingredients in Spanish cooking. It’s a revolution that’s undoubtedly far from ending.