Christopher Columbus brought the first red peppers back from the New World to the Old, and Spaniards have been growing, smoking and grinding them ever since.
Extremadura, three hours’ drive west of Madrid, is the epicenter of pimentón, a distinctive smoked paprika, and La Vera in the northern part of Extremadura is spice central. This area controls the pepper farming and production of the smoked paprika from seed to tin. This spice, unlike another other ground red pepper, has its own seal of origin, D.O Pimentón de la Vera. Locals call it “red gold.”
How did the Catholic Monarchs like ‘red gold’?
Columbus returned with peppers that scientists believe originated in Bolivia about 2,000-3,000 years ago. The plants then spread to Central America.
Columbus took the new vegetables immediately to his patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel, who financed his voyage of discovery in 1492. The monarchs, who were staying at the Yuste Monastery, didn’t like the heat on their tongues.
But red peppers became popular with other Spaniards, and the Jeronimian monks of the Yuste Monastery held the secret of smoking and grinding the peppers into pimentón behind their cloister walls. Extremadura was one of the first places in Europe where peppers and potatoes, both New World vegetables, were grown.
Eventually, though, the monks' secrets leaked out, and within 25 years pimentón was popular all over Europe. By the 18th century, La Vera had pepper plantations along its river banks.
Cultivating peppers is labor-intensive, with plowing in February, planting in May and June and harvest in fall, with hand-picking every day until the first frost.
Discovering the smoky essence of Extremadura’s signature pimentón
The secret to the La Vera pimentón is the drying process. Unlike other ground peppers, the Extremaduran pimentón is not dried in ovens or in the sun, but in second-floor drying rooms over low oak fires below. The floor between the fire and the peppers has tiny gaps so the smoke can rise through. In this most humid part of Spain, the drying can take 10 to 15 days, with workers turning the peppers every six hours.
Travelers can discover the tale of pimentón in the Pimenton de la Vera Museum in Jaraiz de la Vera. The museum is dedicated to the growing, smoking and processing of peppers into pimentón, the economic mainstay of the region.
The distinctive microclimate of Jaraiz de la Vera, with sandy soil and mountains to block the cold winds, keeps high levels of carotene in the peppers throughout their growing season. That translates into a bright red color that holds to harvest and drying.
The story of pimentón continues at the Union of Producers of Paprika outside Jaraiz de la Vera, where travelers can smell the smoky pimentón on the air.
Trucks pull up and workers unload giant bags of peppers from the smoke houses. They’re then ground, mixed with some of the pepper seeds and Spanish sunflower oil, and tinned for shipment around the world.
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