I had been intending to write a longer, deeper post on this subject when I could spend some time in la Vera getting pictures of pimentón being made. Since I won’t be travelling any time soon, I wanted to put up at least a brief post on such an essential ingredient.
First off, “pimentón” is basically the Spanish word for “paprika.” There are different types of paprikas made in the Americas, and, famously, in Hungary, among other places. All paprikas are made from peppers (as in chile peppers or bell peppers) that are dried and then ground up. They each have their own distinctive flavors, aromas, and colors, depending both on the kind of peppers that they are made from, and on the different processes used in their production.
Pimentón de la Vera is a special type of paprika, named after the region in Spain where it is made. La Vera is a region in Extremadura, in the center-west of Spain, not too far from the Portuguese border. La Vera has been granted DOP (Denomination of Origin) status by the EU, because of this special spice. This famous paprika traces its history back 500 years, to when Christopher Colombus first returned from the new world with chile peppers. The peppers, and thus the finished product, have evolved quite a bit in the many years since then, but the lineage is clear. There is a huge amount of pride in the peppers, and in the process by all of the producers, and it really comes through in the end product.
There are a number of peppers used to make Pimentón de la Vera, most of which are grown primarily for that purpose. These include Jaranda, Bola, Jeromin, Ocales, and Jariza peppers. There are 3 typical styles of pimentón made: dulce (or sweet), picante (or spicy), and agridulce (somewhere in between the two). Different producers have different recipes, but the different varieties come from using different blends of the peppers.
Pimentón de la Vera is always smokey. The traditional process used by all producers involves slowly drying the peppers over oak fires for about 2 weeks before grinding them. It only takes one quick smell of the pimentón to understand why that makes the real thing so special and prized.
Of course, you can always use whatever ingredients are available to you while you are cooking. There are lots of different high quality paprikas, including smoked varieties, from other places, and many are quite special in their own right. I highly recommend trying some of the good Hungarian paprikas in your cooking if you can find them. There really is no substitute for Pimentón de la Vera, though, if you want to get the real authentic flavors and aromas of Spain.
You will likely see a few different kinds of paprika, including smoked paprikas, at your local store. The real Pimentón de la Vera is widely available in the USA and is absolutely worth the slightly higher price versus the domestic alternatives.