The Valley of Paprika

October 2010

It is harvest time in the La Vera Valley, and as you read this, groups of farmers and their families are working with their neighbors to harvest ripe red peppers. They flourish along the banks of the Tiétar River as it winds its way through the mountains of Extremadura. These are not just any peppers: once the peppers are dried and milled to a fine powder, they season virtually all the chorizo, lomo pork loins, caldo soups and stews of the forty million people of Spain, for these are the source of Spain's famed smoked paprika, known as Pimentón de La Vera.

The peppers grow in this rich river valley that enjoys a micro-climate which yields peppers of a singular intensity, color and flavor. Although the location is inland in Western Spain, the climate of the valley is almost Mediterranean. The influence of the Atlantic winter is tempered by the presence of the Sierra de Gredos mountain range, which protects the entire region from cold winter winds. The winters in the valley are usually mild and rainy, and the summers are hot and dry – perfect for peppers.

One September many years ago, as my wife Ruth and I were driving through the area, we passed a procession of small tractors pulling wagons laden with their harvest of colorful peppers. Their destination was one of several smokehouses located on the edge of the fields nourished by the Tiétar River. Out of curiosity we stopped to visit one. It looked something like a long low lying hen coop, and stretched for about a hundred yards. It had two levels: The bottom was a chamber filled with wood smoke that seeped through the slatted wood of the second story floor to envelope the waiting peppers above.

Once at the drying sheds, the families unloaded their fresh harvest of peppers. There they spread them out as a thin layer on the smoking floor. The source of the smoke was smoldering oak stumps and logs from holm oaks that dot the adjoining dehesa. They are the last vestige of the original forest that once covered Europe, and are the same type of oaks which nourish the legendary black hoofed Ibérico pigs of Spain. In fact, the encina oaks are the source for the acorns that feed the famous pigs every winter! I like the fact that this primeval woodland is supporting the production of two of Spain’s greatest products: the famed Ibérico de bellota hams and smoked pimentón de La Vera. It is an example of the balance of man and nature at its finest.

For the next two weeks the smokehouse maestro monitors the drying process, stirring the peppers daily to assure that the pungent wood smoke dries them evenly Soon the time is right for the peppers to be delivered to one of several local mills, where the resident miller selects from the peppers brought by each farmer, buys what he discerns to be the best, and creates the final product - smoked Pimentón de La Vera. Three types of smoked paprika are produced: dulce (sweet), agridulce (bittersweet) and picante (hot), depending on the type of pepper that is ground.

Earlier this year, some thirty years later, I returned to the beautiful valley of La Vera. This time I was with my son Tim (now a grown man with children of his own!) We were there to meet one of the pioneers in the commercial production of Pimentón de La Vera.

We drove to the town of Jaraíz de La Vera, which has been inhabited since prehistoric times by successive civilizations and was particularly influenced by the Romans. There we visited La Dalia, the iconic company of José María Hernández. His company was the first to earn the Denomination of Origin, and is one of the last to use traditional granite millstones.

The founder, Valeriano Hernández Martín, had eight children: five boys and three girls: Margarita, Valeriano, Angel, Carmen, Antonio, José, Manuel and Luciana. (You can see them in this picture taken in 1936. The founder is the gentleman at the left, who has one hand on the big tin. The lady between him and the tin is his wife.)

The values, spirit and wisdom of Don Valeriano have been passed from parents to children, especially José María who has an abiding respect for the traditional methods of production and preparation. He and his son welcomed me and my son Tim with the unmistakable warmth that in Spain seems to radiate when families meet.

He is a strong and fine man, whose heart is with the soil, and the traditional products he makes. Taking us back to his spacious warehouse, he showed us the various types of mills his family has used through the years.

Some were machines that receive the newly dried peppers from the local farmers, and make a preliminary run with steel blades. However, he was proud to share that he still uses granite millstones for the final milling in which the peppers are reduced to an aromatic powder. Although it is a lot more work for him, he told me that the hard textured surface of granite grinds the paprika into a finer, silkier powder than any modern process could achieve.

José María and his traditional, family company are exactly the people we love to support. Through their efforts, the old ways of Spain are preserved. Because they cherish their roots and are uncompromising on quality, we are able to enjoy the very best paprika in Spain, possibly in the world. Much of our food nowadays has been commoditized and separated from its roots. This paprika is a flavor intimately tied to one special valley – smoky Pimentón de La Vera expresses the essence of its land, its harvest and its people.