So why don’t I just call it paprika? Because the Spanish word is so much closer to the origin of this spice than is paprika—a word of Serbian origin. Here’s the pimentón creation story.
Pimentón is produced from the capsicum annuum pepper, the chile, 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 derives “pimentón”.
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 (Extremadura) were the first to dry the peppers and use the powder as a flavoring and food preservative. They shared with brother-monks at the monastery in La Ñora (Murcia).
Supposedly Emperor Charles V, when he abdicated the Spanish throne in 1555 and retired to the Yuste monastery, got to like the spice (he was a notorious gourmand) and recommended it to his sister, Queen Mary of Hungary (which roped in parts of Serbia). That’s where it became known as “paprika,” the Serbo-Croatian word for “pepper”.
Which still doesn’t explain why the English-speaking world calls it “paprika” rather than “pimentón.” More Hungarian immigrants to US shores? You can see why I stick to the word “pimentón.”
|Pimentón is made from choricero peppers (left) and ñoras.|
Pimentón is produced both in Murcia, in eastern Spain, and in the La Vera region of Extremadura in western Spain.
In Murcia, in eastern Spain, the hot, dry Mediterranean climate allows the peppers to be sun-dried (or, industrially, dried with hot air).
In autumn when the peppers ripen in La Vera, early rains in the Atlantic climate of Extremadura make sun-drying impossible. So, the peppers are smoke-dried 10 to15 days over smouldering chunks of wild holm oak. From the smoking sheds they’re carried to the milling factory where they are stone-ground to red powder. 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.
Dulce—sweet pimentón—is, by far, the most widely used spice in Spanish cooking. Sweet pimentón, smoked or unsmoked, is the most versatile, while the bittersweet adds complexity to a dish. The spicy-hot is piquant and flavorful, but not as fiery as cayenne.
In Spain, the lion’s share of pimentón goes to the sausage-making industry. The most emblematic Spanish sausage, garlicky chorizo, is colored and flavored with it.
Pimentón is widely used in home cooking too and not just a sprinkle for color. Heaping tablespoons of it go into sauces where it provides richness of flavour. In Extremadura, La Vera pimentón is the preferred type. Elsewhere in Spain, unsmoked pimentón is used lavishly, even in paella and other rice dishes.
Use Spanish pimentón, smoked or unsmoked, in any recipe calling for paprika. It gives a little flamenco flounce to Hungarian goulash. Use the La Vera spice, with its earthy, smoky aroma, in barbecue sauces, marinades and spice rubs. The spicy-hot version adds pizzazz to beans and lentils, gratin dishes, seafood cocktail sauces. The hot stuff is a wake-up call for humble devilled eggs or potato salad.
|Scrape pulp from choricero peppers.|
Store pimentón tightly covered and protected from light.
To use dried choricero or ñora peppers instead of pimentón, remove stems and seeds from the peppers, then soak them in boiling water until softened. Open the peppers and scrape the pulp from the inside.
|Monkfish in pimentón sauce.|
Pescado al Pimentón
This can be made with any solid-fleshed fish, such as monkfish or skate. The sour juice of bitter oranges gives punch to the sauce.
3 slices bread, crusts removed
4 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons sweet or bittersweet pimentón (not smoked)
1 teaspoon oregano
½ cup white wine
1 ½ cups fish stock or water
3 tablespoons olive oil
4 medium potatoes, thickly sliced
2 teaspoons Sherry vinegar or sour orange juice
12 mussels, steamed open
chopped flat-leaf parsley to garnish
Cut the fish fillets into 3-inch pieces. Sprinkle with salt and let set for 30 minutes, then pat the fish dry.
Soak the bread in water to cover until softened. Squeeze it out and put in a blender with the garlic, pimentón, oregano and wine. Blend until smooth.
Heat the oil in a cazuela or skillet. Sauté the pieces of fish about 1 minute on each side. The fish does not need to brown. Remove. Add the potatoes to the cazuela and turn them in the oil for 3 minutes.
Pour over the blended pimentón sauce. Add the fish stock or water. Simmer until the potatoes are almost tender, 20 minutes. Add the fish to the pan and cook in the sauce for 10 minutes, or until fish flakes easily. If sauce thickens too much, add additional broth or water.
Add the vinegar or orange juice and cook 2 minutes more. Garnish with the steamed mussels. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve in the same cazuela in which the fish cooked.