PAPRIKA BY SANTO DOMINGO
by Paul Richardson
Here’s your starter for ten: which is the most popular spice in Spanish cuisine? You might say saffron, but you’d be wrong.
In reality pimentón, or paprika, a powder made from dried, smoked and ground peppers, is perhaps the quintessential Spanish flavouring and certainly the one most Spanish cooks would not be without.
The little square-sided tins, often featuring colourful traditional designs, are a familiar sight in kitchen cupboards all over the country.
On a bright May morning I visited Pimentón Santo Domingo, one of the leading makers of pimentón and a loyal Brindisa supplier for the last two decades. The factory stood on the main street of Aldeanueva del Camino, a small village in northern Extremadura. (The word ‘camino’ affixed to the village name indicates that a branch of the Way of Saint James pilgrimage route passes nearby.) Above the village was a chain of hills clad with the intense green of oak and chestnut forests, and beyond them the peaks of the Gredos mountains, dusted with the year’s last snow.
Along with acorn-fed ham and sheep’s-milk Torta del Casar cheese, pimentón is Extremadura’s signature product and a proud ambassador for the food culture of this still under-the-radar Spanish region. It’s important to distinguish between Pimentón de la Vera, produced in the country of La Vera in Extremadura, and the other type hailing from Murcia and Alicante, which is un-smoked, lighter in colour, and has a lower flavour profile than its extremeño relative. Pimentón de la Vera comes in three different gradations of heat: dulce (‘sweet’), agridulce (‘bittersweet’) and picante (‘spicy’).
In the entrance hall of the stone factory building, where the figure of Saint Dominic peers down from his niche in the wall, I am greeted by Ramón Mirón López, fourth generation of the López family whose great-grandfather Domingo (hence the name) founded the company in 1908.
Ramón sits me down and talks me through the history of pimentón, which is every bit as evocative as its rich, smoky aroma. The pepper Capsicum annum was brought back from the New World by the monks of the Hieronymite order and first grown at Yuste, the Emperor Charles V’s monastery-retreat in La Vera. Until this point in Europe, charcuterie had traditionally been cured with nothing more than salt and black pepper. But pimentón’s unique properties as a preservative and flavouring opened a whole new world of gastronomic possibilities - among which the most significant would be chorizo.
Though geographically speaking Aldeanueva doesn’t fall within La Vera county boundaries, it’s one of the 20 villages belonging to the Denominación de Origen Pimentón de la Vera. Santo Domingo works with 30 local farmers who supply the company with peppers in three main varieties: agridulce, a long thin type used for bittersweet pimentón, the round bola (for ‘dulce’) and jeromín (for ‘picante’).
The process behind pimentón is remarkably simple and, Ramón tells me, has barely changed in the last five hundred years: the peppers are dried and partially smoked for 12-15 days in sheds heated by smouldering holm oak logs. Stalks removed, they are then ground as many as four times to the texture of a fine silky powder.
Up on the first floor, pepper-grinding is underway. Ramón shows me the old rattling mill, made in the nearby town of Béjar and the factory’s pride and joy, with its 200-year-old granite millstone. With every milling, he says, the powder turns a deeper shade of rusty orange-red as the essential oils seep out. The room is filled with a fabulous aroma, a pungent cocktail of plummy sweetness (I think of sun-dried tomatoes) and a haunting smokiness that reminds me a little of barbecued meat.
As you might expect, pimentón plays an important role in the food life of the Mirón/López household. It often appears as a sprinkling on fresh cheese, or as part of a dressing for the locally-grown tomato al perico (with olive oil, oregano, pimentón and salt). A favourite family dish is solomillo adobado, a pork sirloin rubbed with a mixture of pimentón and salt moistened with a little water or oil, left to marinate for three days in the fridge and briefly roasted in a hot oven.
Ramón says (and I agree) there are few things more delicious than an egg fried in Extra Virgin olive oil and anointed with a little pimentón dulce flash-fried in the remains of the oil.
Pimentón has subtleties that would escape anyone who hadn’t spent a lifetime producing it. Apparently the trained palate can detect differences in its bouquet and flavour from one year to the next, as with a fine wine. (Some years are excellent, but none is less than good.)
Outside the day has turned into a radiant spring afternoon. Up on the hillsides, streams rush down through rocky gorges into verdant pastures grazed by herds of goats.
As I take my leave Ramón kindly offers me a trio of Santo Domingo products to take home, and for the next few days I’ll be cooking obsessively with them. One day I’m inspired by the solomillo adobado idea to slow-roast a leg of lamb previously rubbed with pimentón and garlic paste. Next day I stir in a good spoonful to a pot of pork spare ribs simmered with potatoes and onions. I plan to try adding a little agridulce to the vinegar sauce when I make my next rabbit escabeche. I’m also longing to try it out in a sweet context – imagine a pimentón ice cream, or an almond sponge with a hint of pimentón…
One thing’s for certain: few ingredients are as versatile as this, few pack such a punch for a modest outlay (the 75g tin is priced at a mere ₤3.25) - and few have so much to say about the culinary culture of Spain.