Like Hungary’s passion for paprika, Spain also has a love affair with this shock-red spice. It’s deep-rooted in history and more, much more, than the smoked paprika that may first come to mind. Let’s take a deeper look at Spanish paprika – where it came from and what makes its many types tick – so you can use it confidently in the kitchen.
Spanish paprika history
Spanish paprika’s history began with Christopher Columbus, who brought Capsicum annuum seeds back to Europe from the New World in the 16th century. The first chili pepper plants cultivated in Spain were planted in the Extremadura region and spread from there throughout Europe. The other major paprika producing region in Spain is in Murcia’s Guadalentin Valley. The chili peppers used to make paprika are planted each spring and harvested each fall. Today, paprika has become Spain’s second most popular spice after saffron. About half of the paprika imported into the United States comes from Spain.
While the exact content of Spanish paprika has been shrouded in secrecy for centuries, there are a few readily available facts about the spice. The pepper varieties used to make Spanish paprika differ depending on the region. The peppers used in the Extremadura region are the Bola and the Ocales varieties. In Murcia, the Bola and the Nora peppers are grown. The cherry-shaped Bola peppers from Murcia are known for having a bright red color and being particularly sweet.
Spanish paprika flavor and types: More than smoky…
While the best-known Spanish paprika outside of Spain does have a smoky taste, not all Spanish paprika has that flavor. In fact, there are smoked and unsmoked Spanish paprikas. Each group can be further divided into dulce, agridulce, and picante varieties. Dulce is sweet, agridulce is bittersweet, and picante is spicy or hot.
Smoked and unsmoked
Smoked Spanish paprika is also known as Pimenton de La Vera and comes from the La Vera province in Extremadura. The smokiness of Pimenton de la Vera is the result of its unique processing method. It is smoke-dried next to tobacco leaves. This method was originally adopted because of the weather in the La Vera region, which can be rainy around harvest time. This necessitated the farmers drying the peppers indoors over smoldering oak longs rather than in the sun as in Murcia. It is produced in small amounts by growers with decades of experience. Smoked paprikas are the source of the smoky flavor of Spanish dishes like chorizo and paella.
The unsmoked variety offers the same bright color and rich aroma, just without the addition of smoke. See our smoked paprika vs paprika showdown for a detailed comparison of the two.
The dulce version of Spanish paprika is the version that most closely resembles the regular paprika that you might find in a grocery store. It shows up in many Spanish dishes and is an effective all-purpose paprika. Use it to add a little extra burst of flavor and color to any recipe that lists paprika as an ingredient.
Agridulce paprika has a moderate level of heat and is used in various braised dishes. Its origins are one of the guarded secrets of Spanish paprika. It may be a blend of hot and sweet paprikas or it may be made with an entirely different variety of pepper.
Picante paprika is the hot version of the spice; however, it still has the rich flavor and aroma that you expect from Spanish paprika. You will not get the searing heat from picante paprika that you would get from cayenne pepper or other truly hot chili powders. Picante paprika is the regional favorite in Galicia, where it is used as a seasoning for octopus.