IberiaNature A guide to the natural history of Spain
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Pepper and Peppers by Francis Barrett

Peppers of Spain / Spanish pepper

Pepper(s) / Pimienta(s) / Pebre Pepper, the condiment, is a spice made by grinding the dried berry of a plant called Piper nigrum. This vine, which can grow up to ten feet tall, is indigenous to Asia, and nowadays grown mainly in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brazil. The dried berries are called peppercorns, and come in black, white and green versions depending on when they were picked. This is True Pepper, and should not be confused with the capsicum family, which includes bell pepper, red pepper, chili pepper, paprika, cayenne pepper etc.

Black Pepper, the spiciest and most pungent, is made from berries that are picked while still unripe. The berries used for White Pepper are ripened on the vine and then soaked so that their outer hulls can be easily removed, resulting in a hotter, less subtle and mildly fermented flavour. Green Pepper is made from immature berries, which are packed in brine or freeze-dried for preservation, and I am told that it has a milder, fresher taste. The black and white forms of True Pepper have long been used to flavour all types of dishes in cuisines worldwide, and it has become a virtually universal table condiment.

However, Pepper was even less likely to be on the table in any traditional French or Spanish establishment than salt, for the same reason: the cook should decide how much was needed in any dish, not the person eating it. Nowadays it is common for black or white Pepper and salt to be provided in shakers beside the oil and vinegar bottles. Like so many things, the shakers are the opposite of those in Ireland or Britain, in that the one with a single hole is for Pepper while the one with several holes is for salt. Big wooden Pepper mills for grinding black Pepper are rarely seen outside pretentious posh or Italian joints.

Pepper is mentioned in three-thousand-year-old Sanskrit literature. Pepper was one of the earliest items traded between Asia and Europe, and has been an important spice in Spain since Roman times. In the Middle Ages, Europeans often used Pepper to pay rent, dowries, and taxes. Shakespeare mentions Pepper in several of his plays. The cities of Alexandria, Genoa, and Venice owed their economic success to Pepper. The need for Pepper was one of the motives for Portuguese and Spanish exploration in the 15th century.

Multiple misconceptions regarding the nature and origins of pepper stem back to Columbus. He believed he had found a new type of fruit source for pepper, and thus named it pimiento. What Columbus had really found was a form of capsicum plant known by the local indigenous Arawaks as axi or aji, which is the name still used for many varieties of hot pepper. Nowadays English speakers usually refer to these as chili peppers, of which there are a huge variety.

Interestingly, hot chili peppers and other exotic new American foodstuffs were diffused throughout the Old World not so much by the Spanish as by the Portuguese, aided by local traders. The fiery new spice was readily accepted in Africa and India, where the people were long accustomed to highly seasoned food, and thence carried with more traditional wares by Arabic, Gujurati, Keralan, Malaysian, Vietnamese and Javanese merchants along ancient trade routes to south eastern Asia, China and Japan. Chili peppers are known to have reached Szechuan and Hunan by the middle of the 16th century, probably via caravan routes from the Ganges River through Burma. From India, they were also carried back with other spices along the Portuguese route back around Africa and overland to Europe. At this time, the Ottoman Turks were the controlling power in northern Africa, Arabia, Egypt, the Middle East, much of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the eastern Mediterranean. They brought chili peppe
  rs to all these territories; indeed, Hungarians like to laugh that paprika was the only good thing the Ottomans ever did for them. Venice was the main Western European importation centre for spices and other exotica, and the Venetians depended on the Ottoman Turks for goods from the fabled Orient. From Venice the hot chili peppers were taken to central Europe, Antwerp and the north. It was along these avenues that chili peppers are known to have reached Italy by 1535, Germany by 1542, and England before 1538, although they were not widely commercialised in Britain or Ireland until the 1950s. Well into the 19th century, most Europeans continued to believe that peppers were native to India and the Orient, until the botanist Alphonse de Candolle produced convincing linguistic evidence for the South American origin of all members of the pepper tribe.

There is a very wide range of chili peppers, which can be confusing because their level of flavour or heat (i.e. mild or wild) can often only be identified by tasting, by which stage you could be suffering from second degree burns to your mouth. In 1912, Wilbur Scoville developed a system of rating the heat of every kind of capsicum pepper, now known as the 'Scoville Scale'. The higher the number, the hotter the pepper. The numbers are given as a range because hot weather and moisture stress make hot peppers hotter, whereas cool, stress-free growing conditions produce peppers at the milder end of the scale. Thus sweet bell peppers come in at 0 - 100. Ancho chili peppers (1,000 - 3,000) are the most commonly used pepper in Mexico, and are the backbone of dishes such as the traditional red chili and tamales. Jalapeño peppers (55,000) have become quite popular over the last few years. The crushed red chili pepper used in Pakistani dishes rates 20,000 - 40,000. Habanero or Scotch
  bonnet peppers, so called because they look like old-fashioned tam o' shanter berets from Scotland, lead the pack at a scary 100,000 - 350,000, and I understand they are lethal.

Chili peppers and their derivatives are very popular in many countries, but the hotter varieties are not greatly appreciated in Catalunya or indeed the rest of Spain, with the exception of Galicia, Estremadura and the Canary Islands, where murderous dwarf guindilla peppers, raw, cooked or dried, lurk in salads and stews in the hope of dynamiting the palates of unwary eaters. My Argentinean flatmate Esteban usually has lots of these little b*****ds hanging dessicated all over the kitchen, and loves to insert them in the most unexpected dishes.

Most people I know in this country react to even a mild curry as though they were being asked to eat live coals. However, some hot red chilies are used in dried or powdered form to enhance certain popular dishes, not least the famous Latin American chile con carne. Pimentón is the generic name given to the powdered varieties. Pimentón dulce is the mild Spanish equivalent of paprika, the Hungarian version of which is also available. Pimentón fuerte is basically Cayenne pepper (30,000 - 50,000), presumably with additional ingredients. I say this because of the distinction made in Ireland and Britain between chili powder with two 'l's, which is simply Cayenne pepper, very hot but with little or no flavour, and chili with one 'l', which is actually a mix of spices, often sold as chili compound or seasoning, and will include cumin and garlic at the very least, and oregano and other seasonings as well.

Contrary to popular belief, at least in the U.S.A., the word "pimento" does not exist in Spanish. Milder pimientos are not used primarily for flavouring or seasoning, but as ingredients or even dishes in their own right, as seen in a later entry.

2. Peppers / Pimientos / Pebres
Peppers are the fruit of perennial shrubs belonging to the genus Capsicum, and were unknown outside the tropical and subtropical regions of the Western Hemisphere before Christopher Columbus' epic 1492 voyage in search of a short route to the East Indies and its spices, when many misconceptions about the relationship between true pepper and capsicum peppers began. This was dealt with in an earlier entry about chilies and other hot peppers used for flavouring, seasoning and spicing up food. Large capsaicin-free sweet peppers, nowadays sensibly called capsicums in some English speaking countries, were only developed from chili peppers in the 19th century. This entry concerns these and other ordinary peppers. They come in many colours (green, red, yellow, orange, purple), sizes, shapes and varieties, and their tastes range extensively, mostly along the lower reaches of the Scoville scale. Fresh or preserved, they are used extensively in one form or another in a huge range of dis

Fresh bell peppers, which change from green to red as they mature, are at their best in early September.

Pimientos morrones are so called because their shape makes them look as though they have morros [snouts].

Pimientos de Padrón are small green peppers named after a town in Galicia. They are usually fried in salt and served as a tapa. At their best, eating them is rather like playing Russian Roulette; although they are all delicious, about one in five will blow a hole in the top of your skull! Sometimes almost all of them are highly explosive; occasionally, an entire batch is sweet. There are several theories about why only some are picante, but I've never heard any utterly convincing reason given. I once came across a witty menu with a reference to 'Pimientos de Padrón de Murcia', which is like saying "Dublin Bay Prawns from Galway". Actually, Padrón-type peppers are planted and sold all over Spain; some better, some worse, some hotter, some milder. But the most exciting ones are from Padrón itself, while the "non picante" ones from the north of Coruña province are larger and with a less concentrated taste.

Pimientos del piquillo come from Navarra, and have their own "Denominación de Origen" (D.O. Pimientos del Piquillo de Lodosa). These small red peppers are charred over wood charcoal / old vines, then peeled by hand, marinated in olive oil with herbs, and eventually eaten either alone or in a salad or stuffed. I have never seen pimientos del piquillo in any form other than tinned, bottled or jarred, usually without any preservatives or additives. In general, I'd never recommend a canned product over a fresh one, but in this instance I will. This has to do with both the fact that the pimientos del piquillo are quite different in flavour and texture from regular bell peppers, and also the fact that preserving can create something new, and not just poorly imitate the "real thing". In the case of piquillos, the essential flavour may actually be enhanced by the preservation, and the texture is definitely improved. Certainly they are a poor simulacrum of fresh peppers, but that is n
  ot the point. The flavour of canned or jarred piquillo peppers is so extraordinary that even Alain Ducasse recommends them for stuffing in his book, Mediterranees, cuisine de l'essential. Daniel Boulud, Ferran Adrià and many other famous chefs use them. Indeed 99% of Spain's cooks (amateurs or pros) use canned or jarred piquillos. The best brands are: Conservas de Lodosa, El Navarrico and Conservas Rosara. Conservas Dantza piquillos are slightly cheaper because the jar usually contains some torn peppers. My personal favorite way to cook these luscious peppers is in a cazuela (shallow clay pot) where I simply heat them slowly in a few teaspoons of olive oil with some garlic until they release their juices, to be eaten just so or as an unctuous garnish for potatoes or meat. I am not patient enough to make reductions, but I have had reduction of pimientos del piquillo as a spectacular sauce over any kind of dish featuring peppers.

Ordinary green or red pimientos and pimientos del piquillo are frequently fried, baked or roasted, and stuffed with other ingredients. My favourite stuffing is simply fried carne picada [minced pork and / or beef] and onions with garlic, but more ambitious recipes are not uncommon. One I am not very keen on, but which receives a lot of favourable comments from visitors, is brandada de bacalao [cod brandade].