We arrived at the paprika factory of Hijos de Salvador López S.L. in Spain’s De La Vera region on a hot sunny day in late September. There was a trailer parked in the forecourt and the whole place was buzzing with activity as it was being unloaded.
Alicia López Sánchez (above, left, with Quality Manager, Eva Jiménez Costa on the right) gave me a warm welcome. Alicia’s grandfather founded the company and she is the latest generation to get involved – she’s clearly proud and enthusiastic about the company she is running.
The two different brands
She’s initiated some courageous, but also intelligent and thought-out developments, perhaps the most interesting of which is the introduction of a new brand of paprika with DOP designation – Las Hermanas.
“Effectively there is no difference in terms of quality between the new brand Las Hermanas, and our original brand, Los Extremeños” explains Eva Jiménez Costa explains to me. And Eva should know – she is the one who is responsible for quality here. “There are certain things we can’t do with the DOP brand, blending methods and so on. In fact, we have more freedom to create something different with our original brand, but now that’s mostly sold wholesale into the food industry – sausage makers and so on.”
The farms and the harvesting of paprika
Alicia takes me out to watch the unloading process – everybody is excited and happy – I get an enthusiastic thumbs up from one sweating, smiling, toiling sack-bearer. “This is the beginning of the harvest”, Alicia tells me, “but it goes on well into December. From now on we’ll be receiving some 16,000 kg of chilli peppers every day, The crop is produced by about 40 farmers with land in this area, each with an average farm of some 40,000 sq m.”
And then she introduces me to the farmer who is the proud supplier of this latest consignment of glossy, deep burgundy, twisted chillies, currently being unloaded.
“You have to visit the farm”, he invites me. “You need to see the chilli pepper bushes, how they grow, and how they are harvested. And in particular you should also see how we smoke these chilli peppers over oak to dry them, and give them their very special flavour.”
The crucial importance of the oak-smoking process – unique to the De La Vera region
He explains that it’s the smoking process which differentiates paprika made in the La Vera region of Spain from rivals in Murcia (in the south-east of Spain) or in Hungary.
The La Vera region is in a very special micro-climate all of its own. The magnificent Sierra de Gredos provides protection from the winds and the cold in winter; and from the searing heat of the sun in summer. But the mountains are also the cause of the high rainfall. Alicia raises shoulders and eyes ironically up towards the deep blue cloudless sky. “It’s not always like this,” she says with a rueful smile. “It rains here a lot so the chillies can’t dry under the sun’s rays. Here the farmers have to dry them on the upper floor of specially built smokeries – they use oak for their fires and this is a major part of what contributes to the very special flavour of the paprika from this area.”
The skill of milling and blending the paprika
After the harvest is completed, in February and March the farmers who supply the Hijos de Salvador López S.L. factory are issued with the seeds for the next crop – this is so that the company can control the quality of the produce. Seeds for two types of chilli peppers are issued – jaranda (which is mild) and jeromín (which is very hot). Harvested and smoked, they are brought to the factory and sorted – they’re cleaned, and dust and other detritus are removed. Then they are milled – a key skill in the whole process.
Another factor which makes a difference to the flavour is the blending – paprika blending is as skilled as tea blending or wine blending. The powders are mixed to produce three different powders with different levels of heat – sweet, bittersweet, and hot. Alicia’s father still presides over this key process – it’s what differentiates one brand from another in this competitive industry.
Then the paprika is packaged to ensure full traceability.
Finally the paprika is stored in temperature and humidity controlled stock rooms. Eva tells me that the humidity is much more important for maintaining the flavour of the paprika – always keep your paprika in a dry larder.
The importance of marketing
And, of course, marketing also plays its part. Alicia has recently given her DOP brand, Las Hermanas, a fresh and updated make over. She’s hired the talented designer, Isabél Cabello to produce a new, eye-catching logo (“I think the sisters are much more beautiful now” comments Eva).
Cabello (working for the Cabello x Mure agency) won a gold at the Pentawards last month for her work on Las Hermanas. On her advice Alicia took the brave decision to eschew the traditional red of paprika packaging for gold (for the hot version – see image on the right), green (for bittersweet), and blue for the calm, soothing flavour of the sweet and soft ‘dulce’.
I comment that a set of these would make a beautiful Christmas present. Alicia agrees and tells me that the presentation sets already do extremely well.
The history of paprika
Branding is one element in the search to differentiate the paprika product. Hijos de Salvador López S.L. also distinguishes itself by its origin. The factory is in Cuacos de Yuste, the site of a monastery founded by St Jerome (to whom the jeromín variety of pepper gets its name) where the process of crushing the dried peppers to make paprika was originally invented, around the time that the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (also Charles I of Spain) arrived there to live out his final days. The chilli plants originally arrived in Spain from Mexico in the sixteenth century. From there they reached africa and headed towards the ottoman empire…and on through the Balkans, until finally, a couple of centuries later, they arrived in Hungary.
No doubt the ailing ruler placed bountiful coffers at the disposal of his monastic hosts, and it’s a nice thought that his initial investment some 500 years ago may have funded today’s flourishing Spanish paprika industry.
Nowadays the volume of De La Vera paprika produced and sold is up, and so is interest from modern chefs who find that it gives depth, richness and complexity to their culinary creations – vegan and vegetarian chefs, such as Chloe Coscarelli, in particular find its smokey, bacony flavour adds interest.
“This is one of my favourites. When you’re cooking without meat, it’s harder to get that burnt, smokey flavour; smoked paprika is a great thing to add for a bit of that ‘char.’”
Chloe Coscarelli—the vegan chef behind the By Chloe restaurant empire in Vogue, December 2016
“For home cooking having a good collection of spices is key to getting really great flavours in your food. I use cumin and paprika in particular.”
Roberta Hall-McCarron quoted in The Daily Telegraph
My prediction is that the popularity of paprika is in the ascendance. The use of chilli has gone viral (see ‘Trends – 2017″) but chilli is a very blunt instrument. You can forget drinking a good bottle of wine with your hot and spicy meal. Paprika – especially the De La Vera oak-smoked variety – is a much more subtle ingredient. That produced at Hijos de Salvador López S.L. is, in my view, one of the best. It’s no coincidence that the factory is certified under the IFS FOOD V6 quality standard, for the second year running, awarded with the highest level.
And anyone who says that the sweet, mild form of paprika has no taste and should just be used as a sort of sprinkled garnish is missing a valuable trick. A whiff of this muskily mischievous spice will transport you to heaven!