Born to be Mild
Peppers are one of the characteristic ingredients of Spanish cooking. ©ICEX
Author: Paul Richardson/©ICEX
A pepper is just a pepper - right? Wrong. There are hundreds of Capsicum types the world over, and a good proportion of them are traditionally grown in Spain. Some are hot, some are not. Some are made for drying, others to be ground into pimentón (a type of paprika from Spain) and others are grown specially to be eaten fresh. They are omnipresent on European supermarket shelves at almost any time of year: big, fat, brightly-colored peppers from southern Spain, with a mild and inoffensive flavor. But there is a great deal more to the world of Spanish peppers than the intensively-grown products of Murcia and Almería. A host of traditional varieties, as-yet little-known outside their places of origin, offers an unsuspected wealth of curious shapes and aromatic flavors.
The pepper and the numerous relatives of its extended family - green, red, orange, yellow, small and spicy, large and sweet - are one of the characteristic ingredients of Spanish cooking. They can be dried and ground into powder to produce pimentón, a unique Spanish flavouring. They can be preserved whole by various methods: in vinegar or brine, or peeled and bottled in their own juices. And last but not least, they can be eaten fresh, in or out of season, as an ingredient in one of countless Spanish recipes.
Green pepper is an essential element of cold soups like gazpacho, as well as Spanish summer recipes like Majorca's trempó and tumbet would be literally unthinkable without peppers, green and red. Stuffed peppers, with a filling of ground beef, pork and ham, morcilla (black pudding) salt cod, mixed shellfish and/or rice, are a staple of culinary life in Navarre, La Rioja and the Basque Country. As a culinary resource the pepper is virtually limitless, and few world cuisines offer a richer testament to its versatility.
A Rich History
The pepper was first encountered by Spaniards on Columbus' second voyage of discovery (1493-1496), when the great conquistador observed the natives eating a fruit similar in shape and color to a small cherry. The fruits seemed to be very spicy, which led them to believe that this was a relative of pepper - the spice, not the fruit - thereby laying the ground for a confusion which has continued to puzzle and infuriate both cooks and linguists to this day. The Spanish word for pepper (the spice, Piper nigrum in Latin) is pimienta, and it was under this thoroughly misleading name that Columbus brought the first Capsicum back to Europe.
As the world's fifth largest producer of peppers, Spain boasts a magnificent variety of these often overlooked vegetables. The center of pepper cultivation on an intensive scale is the province of Almería, where Capsicums account for as much as 40% of all the available surface area (in greenhouses). Production on this scale is largely dependent on the so-called Morrón variety, and especially Lamuyo, the familiar fat, fleshy, mild-flavored pepper typically found on the supermarket shelves of Northern Europe. Following the Morrón in terms of quantity are the Cristal varieties, which are long and thin, are mostly eaten green, and have a sweetly penetrating aroma.
Thereafter come a host of varieties, most of which are unknown outside Spain, or even outside their home territory. But 2009 looks set to be a year of change for the Spanish pepper. Some of the finest local varieties are finally being recognized for their unique qualities, and recognition in the form of PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) and PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) is on the way for a generous handful of them.
Some Like it Hot
One of the varieties soon to receive a (long overdue) PDO is a pepper which has enjoyed something of a boom in recent years is the Pimiento de Herbón, a pepper from Galicia (northwest Spain) that has become famously known as Pimiento de padrón. While most of these peppers are naturally mild in flavor, a few examples on every plant develop a spontaneous piquancy. Around 10% of Herbón peppers are spicy, but this percentage rises the longer they are left on the plant.
The "Russian roulette" aspect of eating Herbón peppers, not to mention their glorious green color and near-addictive flavor, makes them enormous fun to eat. The fashion for Herbón peppers quickly spread through the diaspora of Galician bars in the big Spanish cities, especially in Madrid and Barcelona. From there they made the leap into foreign markets. Growing demand led to a Herbón-type pepper being grown in Murcia and Almería, and even in Morocco, for export to Argentina, the US and Great Britain. This has led to the eventual creation of a Protected Designation of Origin for the Pimiento de Herbón. The demarcated area centers on the mouth of the Ulla River, on the borders of Pontevedra and Coruña provinces, and includes the villages of Padrón, Dadro, Rois, Pontecesures and Valga. Two cooperatives are mostly responsible for the production of Pimiento de Herbón within the PDO area: Pimerbón and A Pementeira.
The pepper that's sometimes hot, sometimes not, has a close relative in the far north of the country whose growers like to boast that it's never, ever hot. The Pimiento de O Couto is grown exclusively in the county of Ferrol, in the very furthest northwestern reaches of Galicia and of Spain. The O Couto pepper is larger, usually around 6-8 cm (2.4-3.1 in) in length, and grows erect on the plant, whereas the Herbón pepper hangs from the stalk. Some consumers detect a grassier flavor in the Pimiento de O Couto than in that of Herbón. But the main difference is in the heat, or rather, the lack of it. In a part of the world where spicy foods are not widely enjoyed, the Pimiento de O Couto has made a name for itself locally for its reliably non-piquant flavor. As-yet unknown beyond the borders of Ferrol county, it remains to be seen whether the PGI will give this product the boost it deserves.
Sweet and Gentle
Galicia is prodigal in traditional pepper varieties. Of the eight or so Capsicum types recognized at the local level, at least four are currently looking for their niche in a much wider marketplace. Hailing from the south of the region, the varieties of Arnoia and Oimbra are very different from their small and occasionally spicy northern cousins. These are big, sweet, pale-colored peppers, perfect for use in cooking when still green, or for roasting and preserving when they turn red.
The excellence of Galicia's contributions to the Capsicum family is well-known to Marcelo Tejedor (Casa Marcelo, Santiago de Compostela), who is rapidly becoming known as the Autonomous Community's most influential chef. When I mention the Arnoia pepper during a conversation with him, Tejedor goes into raptures about its "softness and perfume. It's wonderful in season, you could eat it raw, it's crunchy and mild, or roasted, or fried, it's absolutely delicious!" Among the seasonally varying dishes on his daily menu, I have seen roast sardines with Herbón peppers, hake with a sweet and sour red pepper sauce, and sea bass served with a stock made with locally-grown green peppers.
A general dislike of hot and spicy foods is common to Spain's northern territories, where many of the country's classiest pepper varieties are to be found (there are few notable exceptions to this general rule, one being the piquant basque guindilla, a long, green and exceptionally hot pepper, preserved in vinegar and a popular Basque delicacy). The famous Pimiento de Gernika is thought to have been grown first as a hot pepper, but had the heat bred out of it over centuries of adaptation to the mild and humid conditions of the Cantabrian coast. Nowadays the variety is used above all as a green pepper, picked when it is still sweet and tender, and used for frying. One of its defining characteristics is its fine skin, which when cooked is so delicate that it virtually melts in the mouth. The variety has been protected under the quality control scheme for Basque food products with the Kalitatea seal since 1993. Moreover, the Gernika pepper is likely to have its very own PDO by the end of the year. Juan Mari Arzak restaurant in San Sebastian has been known to describe his favorite dish as fried Gernika peppers with egg and French fries.
A Fine Rioja Red
The classic pepper of the La Rioja region is often known as the Pimiento najerano, after the town of Nájera where it was first cultivated. This is a longish, conical pepper with a noticeable pico or pointed end, an intense scarlet color when ripe, and a partly uneven surface with two or three distinct "faces". The Pimiento Riojano has its very own PGI. At Echaurren, the region's best-known restaurant, in Ezcaray, chef Francis Paniego serves a wonderful salt cod a la Riojana in the most authentic local style.
As yet, apart from the Pimiento de Herbón, none of these peppers can boast of a commercial presence very far beyond its homeland. Usually there is a good reason for this: Spain's specialty pepper varieties are produced in such small quantities, and are so eagerly appreciated at home, that few of them ever escape from their place of production. For too long these excellent vegetables have been no more than local heroes. Armed with its PDOs and PGIs and a renewed sense of confidence, however, the small world of the Spanish pepper may at last be on the verge of something big.
Paul Richardson lives on a farm in northern Extremadura. A freelance travel and food writer, he is the author of A Late Dinner: Discovering the Food of Spain (Bloomsbury, UK, and Scribner, USA).