The Three Essential Spices of Spain

Don Harris | August 2018

A few years ago, we went on a special mission to visit La Maquina restaurant in the town of Lugones, famed for having the finest fabada stew in all of Asturias. After much driving, we finally arrived at a rustic building with no obvious sign for a restaurant - the only clue was a small green locomotive sculpture on the street. Cold, bone-tired and hungry we stumbled into the small restaurant and took a seat. When the big bowl of fabada bean stew laced with morcilla and pork belly arrived at the table, I knew immediately that the journey was worth the effort!

Before I dipped my spoon into the hearty bowl of fabada, tendrils of steam rose to deliver the aromas of this classic dish, giving me a preview of the flavor powerhouse I was about to enjoy. I discovered later that this humble dish contained all three of Spain’s essential spices, each working together. Stone milled pimentón de La Vera smoked paprika added a bold smokiness; purple garlic cloves lent a rich, roasted foundation; and bright red threads of saffron added a subtle floral note that tied all of the ingredients together.

Pimentón, saffron and garlic. These are the three defining spices of Spain. There are other contenders close to my heart – where would roasted cordero lechal (suckling lamb) be without fresh rosemary leaves, and how could we leave out thyme, bay leaf or parsley? Without those spices and herbs, Spanish cuisine would be much poorer. But the ruling trio influences the cuisine across Spain’s many regions and adds flavor to myriad dishes. Often, they are combined into a one-two-three punch of Spanish flavor. Today I would like to explore each of these essential Spanish tastes.

1. Garlic

Garlic is the quiet ruler of Spain’s kitchens. Almost always a supporting character for the more charismatic main ingredient, it provides the fullness of flavor that is essential. Every region and province of Spain shares a passion for this humble yet powerful clove. Some of my favorite dishes feature garlic as a central ingredient: creamy Ajo Blanco almond and garlic soup; Gambas al Ajillo shrimp sizzling in garlic laced olive oil; Pan con Tomate toast rubbed with garlic and olive oil - just to name a few.

Spain is so passionate about great garlic that the famous purple variety from the region of Cuenca has official IGP protection. (IGP means that the region and type of garlic are part of a Protected Geographical Indication.) Ajo Morado de Las Pedroñeras is a special breed from this area of Castilla-La Mancha, descended from cloves brought back from the crusades in the Middle Ages. It has a bright citrus taste and pleasant spiciness that make it one of the world’s finest garlics.

2. Saffron

If garlic is the humble yet powerful force of Spanish cuisine, saffron is the elegant princess from La Mancha. Over just a few days in October, untold numbers of beautiful purple crocus blossoms are picked by hand. The crimson stigmas of the flowers are plucked by hand, and then toasted to dry and preserve them. It takes over 150 flowers to yield just one gram of saffron threads, so it is not surprising that saffron is among the world’s most precious spices by weight (don’t let that intimidate you, a little bit goes a long way!). As with garlic, Spain has a special status for La Mancha saffron called a Protected Denomination of Origin. 

Our friends Maria Angeles and Juan Antonio at Princesa de Minaya only cultivate a few hectares of crocuses and are fanatics about quality, producing only a few kilos per year. Theirs was named the finest saffron in Spain by a renowned culinary journal. We visited them in La Mancha and were gratified to learn that our orders helped rejuvenate the saffron business in their small town!

This delightful spice adds aroma and color to dozens of classic Spanish dishes. Of course, paella and other rice dishes are the most famous ways to serve saffron. Paella would be a simple rice dish without the golden color and floral notes added by a pinch of saffron! Because saffron releases its flavors and color in liquids, it is usually mixed with broths and sauces. Light soups and seafood stews are often seasoned with a sprinkle of saffron threads, and saffron is a key flavor in sauces such as saffron alioli. 

Because of its value there are saffron fraudsters in the market. A few years ago, a man called me with an unbelievable deal on Spanish saffron. Skeptical, I asked him to send a sample. Surprisingly the saffron threads looked authentic, so I followed a simple method to test its quality. Sprinkling a few threads in cold water, I noticed that some of the stigmas immediately lost their red color. It turns out that corn silk was dyed with food coloring and mixed with saffron! The best way to guarantee you are buying quality real saffron is to look for the Denomination of Origin stamp of La Mancha, with its signature numbered crocus blossom symbol. 

3. Pimentón de La Vera

Intensely smoky pimentón de La Vera is so much more than a type of paprika. This silky red powder is the signature spice of Spanish cuisine, seasoning virtually all the chorizo sausages, lomo pork loins, soups and stews across every part of Spain. Amazingly this spice is made in only one small region, the fertile valley of La Vera in Extremadura, along the banks of the Tiétar River.

Here the special micro-climate produces red peppers with a singular intensity, color and flavor. A few years ago, we visited our friends at La Dalia to see how pimentón was made. La Dalia was the first company to earn a protected Denomination of Origin, and the last to still use granite millstones to grind their paprika.

Owner José María Hernández welcomed us to the factory and let us in on the secrets of this pungent spice. At harvest time, beautifully ripe red peppers are delivered to the facilities from the nearby fields. The peppers are then spread out on the smoking floor. On the level below, logs and branches of holm oak smolder, filling the chamber with intensely aromatic smoke. It was fascinating to learn that the wood came from the nearby dehesa, from the same trees that produce acorns that feed the iconic Ibérico pigs of Spain. I am pleased that this primeval woodland supports two of Spain’s finest products: the fabled Ibérico de Bellota hams and smoked pimentón de La Vera. It is an example of the balance of man and nature at its finest.

After two full weeks of smoking, the dried peppers take on a burnt red color and are ready for milling. José María was proud to show us the granite millstones where the peppers are ground into a silky powder, unleashing the exceptionally smoky, rich flavor that seasons much of Spanish cuisine.

Spain is home to an amazing variety of regional foods, from the arroz caldoso seafood rice of Andalucía to the pulpo a la gallega (octopus with smoked paprika) of Galicia to the cured chorizo sausages of Logroño. The people of each region rightfully take pride in the food traditions that reflect the unique culture and heritage of their lands. The three essential flavors of garlic, saffron and pimentón tie these distinct cuisines together and form the foundation of what we call Spanish cuisine.