Pimentón de La Vera: The King of Spanish Kitchens
Pimentón de la Vera is presumably the best paprika in the world. It comes from the region of La Vera, in the north of Caceres (Extremadura, Spain).
This is a product that should not be missing in any kitchen. Pimentón ranks among the most popular ingredients in Spanish cooking, competing with saffron for spice shelf space. The peppers used in La Vera come from the Ocales variety, known for a deep red color. The paprika they make is the most famous in Spain and goes into the best quality dishes and cured meats.
This is the secret ingredient that makes Spanish food so fantastic. This sweet and smoky substance adds a heavenly aroma and barbecued bliss to anything it touches. Be it meat or vegetable, paprika makes everything better. It enhances flavors, extols your favorite foods, and provides that extra richness when eating them that will give you great satisfaction.
The secret to the high-quality and increased taste of Spanish paprika from La Vera is that is smoked to a perfect finish, instead of just drying the peppers in the sun or in industrial ovens. In Extremadura, the custom is to smoke the peppers over an oak wood fire and that’s what gives the paprika its intense smoky taste.
Origin of Pimentón de La Vera
According to the dominant story of the origin of Pimentón de La Vera, this is original from the Americas and the New World. In 1493, on his third trip back to Spain, Christopher Columbus offered it to the Spanish King and Queen of Spain, which in turn handed it to the Jerónimo monks of the Monastery of Yuste, in La Vera region of Caceres, for its growing.
From Spain, these ‘peppers’ traveled throughout Europe, eventually making their way to Hungary and the Balkans, then ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Here, pimentón (the powdered spice of pimientos rojos) was renamed paprika.
Appellation of Origin (DOP) Status
Since 1998, Pimentón de la Vera enjoys DOP Appellation of Origin status. Just like with Spanish wine, cheese, or olive oil, the production of paprika from La Vera is tightly controlled by special control boards of the Denomination of Origin Regulation Council (Consejo Regulador de la DOP “Pimentón de La Vera”).
All paprika products enjoying this status should have somewhere in their packing the DOP Appellation of Origin seal. That is the Spanish government’s assurance that the paprika was made in La Vera region.
Authentic La Vera paprika is grown and produced in the area of the municipalities of the natural regions of La Vera, Campo Arañuelo, Valle del Ambroz and Valle del Alagón and Arrago, in the north of the province of Caceres.
Types of Pimentón de La Vera
The different varieties of pimentón vary widely in flavor and heat, so most Spanish recipes will specify the best type of paprika for the dish. Spanish paprika from La Vera has three varieties. Each one corresponds to a different type of bell pepper.
- Sweet paprika (Pimentón Dulce) is made with the “Bola” variety of bell peppers, which is the mildest and is round in appearance and very similar to “Ñora” bell peppers. This paprika is slightly sweet with very little heat.
- Bittersweet / Mild paprika (Pimentón Agridulce) is made mainly of “Jaranda” bell peppers and has only a trace of sweetness with an underlying heat. It has more of a bite than pimentón dulce but less heat than pimentón picante.
- Spicy / Hot paprika (Pimentón Picante), made of “Jeromín” hot bell peppers, is hot. It is spicier than other types of pimentón, though nowhere near as spicy as hot peppers like cayenne.
The texture and color of these bell peppers are the same. Maybe some may be a little darker than others, but it’s always a fairly intense red. Also, that is a symbol of the quality of the paprika, because the paprika from La Vera, the moment it goes out of date, turns a very dark brown color and tastes very bad.
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.
Cooking with Pimentón de La Vera
Pimentón is essential to Spanish cooking, flavoring and coloring such national dishes as paella, chorizo, sobrasada, and so many Spanish stews and soups.
Its bright red color and smoky flavor make it the perfect finishing touch for a variety of tapas such as grilled octopus and patatas bravas. Use a sprinkle of the smoked varieties to add just-grilled flavor to any finished dish; since the smoky flavor can be overpowering, it’s best to add just a pinch.
In general, it is so tasty that you can use it in almost any dish to give your foods a burst of color by adding it to sauces, lasagna, stews, and soups. It’s even used to add flavor to certain types of Spanish cheese or baking cakes. You’ll even see it used as a garnish, sprinkled over dishes to give a pop of orangey-red. It can, by itself “turn on” any dish and raise it to the highest level of quality and flavor. It brings a lot of aroma and intensifies the flavor of your dishes.
You’ll find that cooking with paprika adds a smoky, earthy element to the dish, and lifts the barbecued flavors of grilled meats. It goes well with pretty much anything savory, from meats and poultry to fish as well. Add it near the end of the cook, so that the color and flavor don’t get worn down.
How Pimentón de La Vera is Produced
The second secret to the high-quality Spanish paprika from Extremadura, along with the drying process, is the extraordinary growing weather in the valley of de La Vera.
Free of additives and harmful substances. La Vera paprika is halogen-free as it is not subjected to any chemical treatment and contains no added products. It does not contain gluten, which makes it an ideal product for coeliacs.
La Vera paprika has an artisanal cultivation process and a smoke-drying process that allows it to have a flavor and aroma unlike any other. Its slow dehydration process also allows it to preserve its unique color properties. In fact, its intense red coloration after smoking gives it a great coloring power.
Seedlings are transplanted in May just in time for spring rains and sunshine. In October, the sun-ripened peppers are hand-picked by local farmers just as they were by monks back in the 16th century.
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.
The plump peppers are dried down by almost 75% in the smoking process. The next step is to remove the stems and seeds before the peppers are ground in a stone mill. Traditional stone wheels are used so that friction doesn’t create heat that would strip some of that deep paprika flavor.
In that final step, the peppers are processed. The result is what the locals call “red gold.” Pimentón or smoked paprika comes in three versions, with varying levels of heat depending upon the chilies used.
Currently, according to the Denomination of Origin Regulation Council (Consejo Regulador de la DOP “Pimentón de La Vera”), the crop of La Vera paprika covers around 1,500 hectares and has an annual production of 4,500,000 kg, certified as Denomination of Origin.
Differences between Pimentón and Paprika
Pimentón just means “paprika” in Spanish. Typical grocery store paprika is usually machine-dried and lacks the smoky, sweet depth of pimentón. Whereas paprika from other countries usually comes from red bell peppers, Spanish pimentón comes from a wide variety of local Spanish peppers with differing levels of sweetness and spice.
Other High-Quality Paprika from Spain: Pimentón de Murcia
While smoked paprika is the king of the Spanish kitchen, the best un-smoked spice comes from the region of Murcia in the east of Spain, which is famous for sweet paprika: Pimentón de Murcia.
In Murcia, thin and spicy chili peppers became over a period of centuries sweeter and rounder. Known as Bola peppers, these fruits are hand-picked and laid out in the sun to dry. After a few days, you can crush the dried peppers to make a sweet, bright-red powder. It may not pack the flavor of La Vera smokier paprika, but it adds a great color and light spice to any meal.