For many years, I assumed that paprika was a Hungarian invention, misled by the origins of the word we use in England to describe this powdered spice. In fact, the story has it that Columbus presented sweet and chilli peppers to King Fernando and Queen Isabel of Spain as a gift of thanks for their support of his second expedition.
Capsicums were just some of the many crops discovered in the New World and carried back to Europe during that first era of European exploration. Interestingly, although capsicums are completely unrelated to the peppercorn, the word ‘pepper’ was historically used as a catch-all term for all ingredients and spices that imparted heat, hence our reference to capsicum fruits as sweet peppers today. A process quickly developed for growing, drying and grinding capsicum into a ground spice.
Although cultivation eventually spread across much of Spain, there are two key Spanish regions that are most strongly identified with producing paprika – Murcia in the South East of Spain and La Vera (in Extremadura) to the West. In Murcia, peppers are sun dried before being ground into plain pimentón (as paprika is called in Spanish); in Extremadura the fruit is dried over oak wood fires, which imparts a distinctive smoky flavour to the finished spice.
Cecilio Oliva, producer of La Chinata’s paprika explains the historical difference between the two: ‘the autumn sun in Murcia allows the product to dry in the open air; whereas the autumn rains, a feature of Extremadura, forced us to design an alternative process – drying with smoke.’ Known as pimentón de la Vera, this is sold as smoked paprika in the UK.
It didn’t take long for the popularity of this spice to spread across Europe, and Hungary quickly became a major producer, lending its word for the spice to the English language in the late 19th century – indeed paprika is considered the Hungarian national spice.
As well as choosing between plain and smoked, paprika is also available in strengths from mild and sweet to hot and spicy, a factor of the variety of capsicum used and whether the seeds and membranes are included in the final spice. Hungarian paprika has 8 traditional categories including the mildest, különleges, through to hottest, erős.
Today paprika is produced in many countries around the world including Hungary, the Netherlands and the USA, though only Spain is strongly associated with the smoked variety.
Owen Morgan, owner of Cardiff restaurant Asador 44, and South Wales tapas and drinks chain Bar 44, loves the evocative nature of smoked paprika – ‘the wonderful deep smokey aroma when popping open a beautifully decorated tin’ transports him to Spain in an instant. As a chef he appreciates paprika’s ability to ‘elevate a dish and add a depth of flavour’.
In Spanish cooking paprika is used in hearty meat and fish stews, dips and sauces such as romesco and bravas, and to flavour spicy sausages like chorizo and chistorra. Hungarian goulash (soupy beef stew) and paprikás csirke (chicken in a spicy cream sauce), Portugal’s frango de churrasco (spiced grilled chicken) and Russian Stroganoff (sauteed beef in a sour cream and paprika sauce) also showcase the spice to great effect.
It’s also the perfect spice for pepping up all manner of dishes – stir spicy hot paprika into a casserole to add gentle heat or mix into mayonnaise or crème fraiche for a quick dip for vegetables or crisps; combine smoked paprika with powdered garlic and salt to make a quick spice rub for beef before roasting or add to oils, marinades and salad dressings to boost colour and flavour; choose sweet mild paprika to pep up cocktails and desserts or sprinkle over popcorn for a simple snack.