American paprika can be a pretty innocuous spice. Dusted on roasted potatoes or speckled on hummus, its vibrant rusty hue commands more attention than its mild sweet pepper flavor. But in Spain, paprika, or pimenton, is a vital ingredient. So much so that there are even Denominations of Origin for Spanish paprika.
"Just like with wine, they have DO's for certain food products," explained Tara Eiguren, co-owner of The Basque Market. "It just means that it has to be from that region and it has to be cared for with the laws and regulations that DO puts on that item."
Made from dried, ground red chiles, Spanish paprika comes from either the Murcia or La Vera province and is divided into three categories: pimenton dulce (sweet), pimenton agridulce (medium-hot) and pimenton picante (hot.) Paprika from La Vera has a notable smoky flavor, which is imparted during the region's traditional drying process in special oak drying houses.
"It's really good on pork loin or solomo," said Eiguren. "We use a little bit of it even in our paella. Traditional paellas were cooked over an open fire. We don't get to do that on a daily basis ... it gives it a little smokiness."
Smoked paprika has gained notoriety of late, showing up in countless glossy mag recipes and even snagging a spot on Epicurious' top food trends of 2011 list.
"It's always been a very popular ingredient for us, but now I find that people are reading Bon Appetit or Gourmet and finding recipes where they need it," said Eiguren.
The Basque Market sells paprika in both sweet and hot, which runs $5.69 for 75 grams.