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Peppers, from fire to sweetness

Peppers have been cultivated and bred to produce over 200 varieties.
Peppers have been cultivated and bred to produce over 200 varieties. / Daniel Maldonado
  • The spicy fruit that came from the Americas has become one of the sweetest and most used vegetables in Mediterranean cuisine

Christopher Columbus did not return from his first trip to America in triumph. The 'West Indies' he had reached by sailing westwards lacked the valuable spices he had gone to look for. Therefore, in his audience with the Catholic Monarchs, he focused on the two products he did find: cocoa and a fruit used by the Indians as a spice, the pepper.

The 'pepper' of the New World was one of the first products accepted and cultivated in Spain and Italy and then throughout the Mediterranean, Asia and Africa. None of these culinary cultures would be recognisable today without the hollow berries of Capsicum, a genus in the Solanaceae family which now has more than 200 varieties, both sweet and spicy, and is used fresh or dry or as a condiment throughout the world.

The initial flavour of a pepper is due to the capsaicina, a defensive substance generated by the plant that causes the sensation of spiciness. However, Old World farmers saw more possibilities and soon began to develop hybridisations and select seeds of the species Capsicum annuum for use as a vegetable.

Nowadays we have green, yellow, white, red, orange and even black peppers, but they all start off green. In this first phase of the fruit, the abundance in a compound called isobutyl-methoxypyrazine is responsible for the strong and distinctive aroma that is so refreshing in gazpachos, salads, sautées and soups.

In yellow peppers there are fruity notes with a hint of citrus due to the carotenoid lutein. In ripe fruits both compounds disappear and, as well as an increased sugar concentration, other carotenoids are produced, making the red pepper an excellent source of group A vitamins. Carotene is soluble in oil, which is why red peppers (particularly dried ones) dye other foods red on contact with hot oil.

Dried or fresh, the pepper is one of the few foods whose consumption remains stable regardless of its availability or price.

Within the Mediterranean basin (the producer of 43% of peppers consumed worldwide) Spain and Italy share only 30%, while Turkey exceeds 25% of production.

Although Almeria is the main producer of peppers in Spain, Galicia is the region most concerned about protecting its varieties. The famous Padrón pepper, brought from Mexico by the friars of the San Francisco de Herbón monastery (La Coruña) between the 16th and 17th centuries, gives its name to a variety, but the DOP for this pepper is 'Pimiento de Herbón'.

There are four other varieties protected in Galicia, all small or medium sized green peppers: Arnoia, Mougán, Oímbra and Couto.

Another famous pepper is the Pimiento de Piquillo de Lodosa (Navarra) and the Basque Gernika pepper, also green and up to nine centimetres long, are both protected.

Add to these the Pimiento Riojano, the Pimiento Asado de Bierzo and the Pimiento de Fresno-Benavente (a large pepper weighing up to 300 grammes) there are all types of peppers suitable to fry, roast or stuff; the fruit of years of cultivation and the wisdom of farmers.