Poor man's pepper

Poor man's pepper
  • Unlike some other spices, paprika had always been cheap and easily accessible to everyone

Gastromomers such as Francisco Abad Alegría, who dedicated his investiture speech to the Academia Aragonesa de Gastronomía to Saffron and paprika, ventured that the red of the paprika was the backbone of Spanish cuisine.

This is because, unlike some other spices, paprika had always been cheap and easily accessible to everyone. The first varieties of Capsicum that Christopher Columbus brought from the Americas were hot. In its place of origin, 'chilli' was as valuable as salt and for the sailor who had discovered that country while he was looking for India and its gold and spices, it was a very interesting find.

Abad Alegría and other historians believe it was Columbus who took the first pepper seeds to the Real Monasterio de Guadalupe while on a pilgrimage in 1493 to pay thanks for his good fortune. The monks then took seeds to their monastery in Yuste, also in Cáceres and then to other monasteries including San Pedro de la Ñora (Murcia), where it was called 'pimiento dulce'.

Both zones, La Vera in Cáceres and Ñora in Murcia, are the only regions in Spain that have the DO (Denominación de Origen) for paprika. By the eighteenth century the sweet varieties were being used as a vegetable: the 'pimienta de pobres' (pepper of the poor), which came to be called 'pimiento'.

The condition of the cheap condiment meant that it was completely absent from wealthy homes and recipe books for nearly two hundred years.

It is likely that in 1557, when Charles I of Spain and V of Germany retired to the monastery at Yuste that the monks were already growing peppers, but documents at the time don't mention it as the emperor took his own select spices such as cloves and cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper. He would not have eaten the vulgar red version although it did appear in paintings by Velázquez such as the 'Vieja friendo huevos' (1618).

The peppers used to make paprika have little flesh and are rich in carotenoids such as capsanthin, capsorubin and beta-carotene, which give them the intense red colour of the sweet varieties. The hot varieties have an abundance of a defensive chemical, capsaicina, which is responsible for the burning sensation. The drying process concentrates these substances which dilute easily in contact with fats (carotenoids are liposoluble which is why they quickly colour other foods when fried with them).

As paprika was a cheap condiment there are few documents available with which to trace its history. Its popularity spread from Spain to Turkey and then to Hungary where it was called 'paprika'.

Initially the dried peppers were used whole. Nowadays it is possible to find it in flakes and powder. Dried peppers are used rehydrated and chopped in stews that require long cooking, flakes can be used as a topping or garnish and powder is perfect for marinating and dressings and other short cooking dishes.

The main difference between the La Vera and the Murcia paprikas is the drying process. In La Vera the peppers are dried in oak smoke. In Murcia they are dried in the sun. The varieties differ too, Murcia only use the ñora pepper for their sweet paprika and in La Vera they produce three types using the long jaranda pepper in all of them. For the sweet paprika they mix it with bola, a sweet variety; for the intensely flavoured bittersweet paprika they add jariza and for hot paprika they add jeromín.

Choosing the most suitable one for each dish is a matter of taste, but it is worth using a quality paprika (the common ones are made with paprika grown in third countries), because it is still an affordable spice and the only one genuinely Spanish.