Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
A key ingredient in numerous cuisines, paprika often appears in rubs, marinades, sauces, stews and chilies, from classic Hungarian goulash, to Moroccan tajines, Mexican rice dishes and Cretan and Catalan sausages. Paprika can be smoked, sweet, hot, Hungarian or Spanish style, depending on the variety of the red peppers used and how they are processed.
Paprika’s origins are in Northern South America and particularly central Mexico; pepper plants (Capsicum) were brought to Spain in the 16th century. The peppers grow in a wide variety of shapes and sizes that are either mild or hot, such as bell peppers, jalapeños, Mexican chilies, and cayenne pepper. The word “paprika” is of Slavic origin, from the Latin “piper”. Paprika is known in the Spanish-speaking world as “pimentón” and, depending on where it is grown and processed, it is available in three varieties: sweet (dulce), bittersweet (agridulce), and spicy (picante). The level of heat or sweetness and the color is based on the fruit blend used. Much of the paprika is smoked and is known in South America as “merken”. Spanish paprika is generally less intense than the Hungarian variety, but both can be used in a multitude of ways.
During a trip to Extremadura a couple years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to visit the facility where Las Hermanas pimentón de la Vera brand of traditional Spanish paprika is produced. The company, run by two sisters, is considered one of the best Spanish paprika producers out of more than 15 regional manufacturers, in a small town near Cáceres. They produce and package both paprika powder and a dried whole fruit variety.
Pimentón de la Vera has been produced in the Extremadura region of la Vera for a very long time, with cultivation beginning in the Yuste Monastery around the 16th century.
Workers enrobed in red gowns and caps bring the peppers, trucked to the plant by long term contract farmers, to a selection area where the fruit is hand selected. The peppers are then placed in a dehydrating room until they are desiccated to lose most of the water content or, for the smoky variety, dried traditionally over indirect-heat oak fires.
They are then piped into a large room where rows of red-colored grinders turn the fruit into powder or are hand-carried to another area where whole dried peppers are sealed in plastic wrap. The powder is packaged in various sized tins and the whole desiccated fruit in cardboard boxes.
Of the three ground varieties I tasted, I thought the dulce was extremely good because it gave to the meatballs (albondigas) used as a tasting dish an exceptional smoky taste.
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