Rachel Weill
Pepper parade (clockwise from metal spoon): Maras (Turkey); Urfa (Turkey); Tutto Calabria (Italy); kirmizi biber (Turkey); piment d'Espelette (France); and Controne (Italy).
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Pepper Powder Power

Joyce Goldstein / October 2007

Chef/author Joyce Goldstein discovers that Europe abounds in nuanced varieties of the sprinkling spice generically called paprika.

When I was growing up, paprika was the universal garnish. It was sprinkled on deviled eggs, hollandaise sauce, cauliflower, fish fillets, and even roasted chicken. Only Hungarian restaurants understood paprika as a spice and flavoring agent. Everywhere else it was used for color rather than for taste.

Today, chefs have embraced Spanish smoked paprika (pimentón de la Vera) with zeal. They're in love with its smoky characteristics and use it as a short cut to get the flavor of outdoor cooking into their food without ever lighting a grill. But there is such a thing as overkill. Before we tire of it completely, why not explore the rest of the rich and diverse European pepper powders. I spent an incredible day tasting Hungarian paprikas, Spanish pimentóns, Basque piment d'Espelette, Southern Italian hot pepper powders, and finally some ground peppers from Turkey, a country inextricably linked to the pepper migration from the New World to the rest of Europe.

First, a history and geography lesson. For years most Europeans were under the misconception that peppers originated in India. We can blame some of this confusion on Christopher Columbus, who set out for India looking for spices, especially peppercorns, which came from the Malabar coast of India. He landed in the Caribbean and thought he had indeed arrived in India, so he called the natives "Indians." (In case you were wondering why our Native Americans are called Indians, to the Old World explorers, everyone in the New World was an "Indian.")

Some pepper scholars believe the capsicum plant originated in Bolivia and then spread to Central and South America, eventually to Mexico and as far as the Caribbean. All now agree that the pepper plants first came to Europe from the New World in the hold of Columbus' ship on his return journey to Spain. The Spaniards were relatively unimpressed and put the pepper plant on culinary hold but cultivated it in monastery gardens. Ironically, it was not the Spaniards who actively disseminated the plant throughout the Mediterranean. It was those amazing Portuguese explorers and traders who first carried the peppers home from Brazil and then transported them to their colonies of Angola and Mozambique, giving hot peppers a foothold in Africa, then around the Cape of Good Hope to Goa on India's west coast, through the straits of Malacca, between the Malay peninsula and Sumatra, to Macao in southern China, and then to Nagasaki, Japan, on to the Philippines, across the Pacific to the Spice Islands. The peppers then traveled home to North America with African slaves on Dutch and English ships. They circled the world in less than 50 years!

Incas called the fruit of the plant aji. Aztecs called it chilli. In Europe, to distinguish the pepper pod from peppercorns, they were given different names. In the 16th century, Greek spice merchants called it chilli pepper; the Spaniards called it chile. Hungarians changed the name to paprika. Italians called it peperone. It was red pepper in England and Indianifcher pfeffer in German and poivre d'inde in France (Indian pepper).

What is most incredible is how in all of the countries where the plant was cultivated, the capsicum pepper evolved into a number of distinct species and varieties. It took on new shapes and pungency, depending on the local soil, rainfall, and temperature. (Even in the same plot of peppers, heat components may vary.) In general, peppers grown in hot climates are hotter than those grown in cool environments. Many of more pungent pods are thin with tapering shoulders and a sharp pointed end. Most plants are annual, a few perennial.

In each country where the capsicum pepper was cultivated, it was crossbred to produce a flavor to suit its cuisine. Just consider the wide range of peppers grown in Mexico and Latin America, India, Southeast Asia, and Asia to suit their more pungent cuisines, as opposed to the narrower range of peppers in Europe. While paprika became an integral part of the cuisine in Hungary, it was bred for flavor but not for heat, and somewhat the same is true in Spain. In Italy, Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece, paprika is less present in the culinary repertoire as a signature spice.

So let's talk about heat. If I say the hottest Hungarian paprika is mild and roundly hot, about a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10, I am not referring to the Scoville scale developed in 1912 by the chemist Wilbur Scoville for measuring capsaicin, or pungency, in peppers. For this article I set a tasting heat scale from 1 to 10, from the mildest sweet paprika pepper to the hottest chile pepper from Calabria. On the Scoville scale, the European peppers would measure from 100 to about 30,000 or 40,000 for the hottest, such as piri piri or some of the Calabrian peppers. Keep in mind that the habañero reaches 350,000 on the Scoville scale, 10 times hotter than any of these European peppers.

Hungary For several hundred years in Hungary the capsicum plant was called "Indian pepper." One theory is that capsicum paprika came to Hungary from India via Persia, transported by the Turks at the beginning of the 16th century. According to Leonard Fuchs, a German professor of medicine, in his early study of the medicinal uses of the pepper, capsicum peppers were already cultivated in Germany by 1542, in England by 1548, and in the Balkans by 1569. Fuchs knew that the chiles he was working with had been imported from India, so he called them Calicut peppers, but was wrong in that he thought they were native to India.

Yet another hypothesis is that Italian traders got paprika peppers from Spain and introduced the peppers to Italy. The Turks, who had active trade with the Italians, took the seeds from Italy to the Balkans, part of the very powerful and extensive Ottoman Empire. In the 16th century the empire included Bulgaria and most of Hungary. The Bulgarians were reputed to be great farmers, and many had moved to Hungary in search of better weather. They cultivated the paprika pepper plants, and they introduced paprika peppers to Hungary.

However, the most likely scenario is that the Turks became aware of chile peppers when they laid siege to the Portuguese colony of Diu near Calicut (Calcutta) in 1538. The Turks then transported the peppers along the trade routes of their vast empire, which stretched from India to Central Europe. Sometime between 1538 and 1548 the peppers were introduced into Hungary.

Paprika is the Hungarian national spice. Restaurateur and Hungarian native George Lang says it is part of the national character. It's not a garnish but "an integral element in the cuisine, a special and unique flavor instantly recognizable." In the early days only the nobility could afford pepper in the form of peppercorns from the Spice Islands. Eventually, homegrown Hungarian paprika was embraced as a worthy substitute. It was an upwardly mobile spice, first used by the peasants, who cultivated the peppers, then by the bourgeois townspeople, and finally the aristocracy.

Hungary was the first country to use powdered paprika in pure form, unmixed with anything else. The finest Hungarian paprika comes from Szeged on the Tisza River in southern Hungary and from Kalsoca on the Danube River. The peppers are bright orange in color. They're sweet, akin to a bell pepper crossed with burnt sugar or caramel. The paprikas are very finely ground and have a silky texture.

Hungarian paprika comes in three strengths: sweet, semi­sweet, and hot. In general the hottest paprikas are paler red to rust, whereas the sweetest are bright red to orange. But heat is a relative term. In Hungary, the peppers were gradually interbred to reduce the heat component. In making paprika, at first the veins and seeds were removed by hand to reduce the heat. In 1859, the Palfy brothers invented a machine for removing the veins and seeds. The paprika was still rich in flavor, but mild. Ferenc Horváth is credited for cultivating a pepper that was sweet throughout and whose veins and seeds had no heat.

Notable dishes: all manner of goulashes and porkolts, stews with veal, beef, or pork; csirke paprikás (paprika chicken); csirke maj gombaval (chicken livers with mushrooms and green peppers); paprikás burgonya (paprika potatoes with sausage); rostelyos (various steaks, including those called Esterhazy, "bandit," and "gypsy"); rácponty (carp with potatoes and sour cream); harcsás káposzta (fish with sauerkraut and sour cream).

Spain In Spain paprika is called pimentón and the pepper called pimiento. The pepper plants were first cultivated in monasteries in Extremadura. Monks crushed the peppers and added them to food. The gradual introduction of paprika into the cuisine began in the 17th century. There are a few pimentón accented dishes—usually hot and spicy—in the Spanish repertoire, but the spice does not dominate the cuisine as it does in Hungary. Instead, pimentón's primary use is to flavor sausages, cured meat, some stews, and sauces.

Spanish pimentón comes unsmoked and smoked. The un­smoked sweet, or dulce, is largely produced in Murcia in southeastern Spain. It's made from ground ñora/choricero peppers—sweet, mild varieties that are sun-dried and stone ground. Smoked pimentón comes from LaVera in Extre­madura. It now has Denom­inación de Origen status. Harvest is usually in October, when the peppers turn bright red but are still pliable. In the more humid Extremadura, the peppers have a tendency to mold, so they can't be sun-dried. Instead, the practice of drying them slowly over oak fires was developed. The peppers smoke for 10 to 15 days and are turned daily. Once dry, they are stone ground. Much of the smoked pimentón goes to sausage factories, where the spice is a signature note in chorizo sausages. Smoked pimentón comes in three basic strengths—dulce (sweet), agridulce (bittersweet), and picante (hot). It's not as finely ground as Hungarian paprika.

Notable dishes: chorizo and other sausages; romesco sauce; sofrito, the base for paella and other rice dishes; pulpo a la gallega (octopus with pimentón); patatas a la riojana (potatoes with chorizo); lomo de cerdo adobado (pork with paprika laced marinade); suquet (fish stew).

Portugal Tiny piri piri peppers as hot as cayenne (30,000 to 50,000 Scoville units) arrived in Portugal via Angola. Piri piri means pepper-pepper in Swahili and is sometimes spelled pili pili. The small peppers are often preserved whole in vinegar but also are dried and ground into a powder. Piri piri molho (sauce) is used as a marinade for grilled chicken.

Ground paprika, called colorau, comes in sweet and hot varieties and is similar in flavor to Hungarian paprika. Roasted sweet red peppers (pimentao-doce vermelho) ground with garlic are used as a marinade called massa di pimentao.

Notable dishes: chouriço and other sausages; garlic soup; amêijoas na cataplana (clams and pork and/or sausage); tripas à moda do porto (tripe Porto style); frango grelhado (grilled chicken with piri piri); rojões à Minhota (pork stew); goat leg from Beira Alta.

France The only hot pepper featured in France, piment d'Espelette is a culinary icon in Basque cuisine. It is mildly hot, 4 or 5 on a scale of 10. The peppers are picked when red, threaded on cords, and hung on the side of buildings and on racks to dry in the sun before being ground. The pepper was given Appellation d'Origine Contrólée status in 1999. Total growing area is only 3,000 acres centered in Nive Valley. The town of Espelette has an annual pepper festival the last Sunday in October.

Notable dishes: marmitako (fresh tuna stew); pipérade (ham and eggs with pepper/onion/tomato sauce); ttoro (seafood stew); lentils with ham; rabbit with garlic and rosemary.

Italy Although Piedmont prides itself on its sweet peppers, it's in the south of Italy where hot pepper cultivation thrives. Some are grown in Abruzzo, where they're called diavolicchi and infused in a hot oil called olio santo. Some are grown in Campania. We tasted a delicious ground hot pepper powder from Controne, a small town at the foot of the Alburni mountain range near the border of Basilicata. The most famous hot peppers, however, come from Calabria and are called peperoncini plus endless endearing names in dialect. There is actually L'Accademia Italiana del Peperoncino, a chile pepper academy in the Calabrian town of Diamante, where a pepper festival kicks off the first week of September. Shop owners and residents decorate their stores and houses with filas, strings of dried pepper. The peperoncino is a signature flavor in the food of Calabria, added to sausage, all manner of stews, and sauces.

Notable dishes: sausages; seafood stews; braised bitter greens; marinated olives; arrabbiata sauce; puttanesca sauce; orecchiette with cauliflower or broccoli; ditalini (small pasta) with mussels and potatoes.

Turkey I included three Turkish peppers—kirmizi biber, Maras, and Urfa, the latter two named after the towns—for consideration. After all, it was the Turks who really promulgated peppers in Europe. Peppers entered the cuisine of the Eastern Medi­ter­ranean before the rest of Europe, where they were first valued for medicinal—not culinary—properties. Amal Naj, in his won­der­ful book Peppers, says: "Eventually it would be the Turks who would bring wide attention to the pepper as an item of food in Europe."

Notable dishes: muhammarah (red pepper/walnut sauce); izmir koftesi (lamb or beef meatballs); cig kofte (raw meatballs, either lamb or beef); adana kebabi (skewered ground meat); tavuk izgara (grilled chicken kebab in yogurt/paprika marinade); arnavut ciggeri (fried lamb's liver served with onion salad); Circassian chicken salad with creamy walnut sauce and hot paprika butter; izgara kilic sis kebab (grilled swordfish with paprika rub).

Tasting notes
To evaluate and understand the differences between the pepper powders, I ordered spices from multiple sources so they could be as fresh as possible. I also wanted to compare the same spices from different sources to see if there were noticeable flavor differences.

These are the companies I contacted:
• Kalustyan's in New York City for a wide variety (www.kalustyans.com)
• The Spice Shop in London for a wide variety (www.thespiceshop.co.uk)
• Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for Turkish Maras and Urfa and French Basque piment d'Espelette (www.zingermans.com)
• Penzeys (nationwide outlets) for sweet, half-sharp, and hot paprika (www.penzeys.com)
• The Spanish Table (multiple locations; www.spanishtable.com) and La Tienda () of Williamsburg, Virginia, for Spanish pimentóns
• ItalFoods of San Francisco for Tutto Calabria brand hot pepper () ‰
• Ritrovo in Seattle for Controne peppers (www.ritrovo.com)
• Formaggio Kitchen in Boston for Turkish Maras and Urfa peppers (www.formaggiokitchen.com)

Along with two of my former sous chefs, we tasted over 25 European pepper powders—a mind-boggling, palate-expanding experience. We tasted them plain, and then infused in warm olive oil. We waited an hour and tasted the infused oils again, and the peppers had evolved. We used boiled potatoes and bread to clear our palates. Sliced pear was needed after the pain of the Tutto Calabria pepper.

Hungary The Hungarians have many different names for the entire range of sweet, bittersweet, and hot paprikas. First-class or special quality sweet is called különleges; noble sweet is known as édesnemes; bittersweet or half-sharp is graded as félédes and rózsa; and hot is seductively called eros.

Sweet paprikas Különleges (special quality) is the sweetest, roundest, and mildest, with not even a trace of heat. It's bright red, silken in texture from a very fine grind, sweet and round in taste. (Spice Shop)
édesnemes (noble sweet) is golden orange, finely ground, very round in flavor, almost buttery, and no heat at all. (Spice Shop)
Szeged in the can is a dark rust in color and finely ground, sweet, and complex, but not as sweet as the others. Tastes like a blend. (Kalustyan's)
Penzey's house brand is a darker orange, finely ground, sweet, and mild.
Félédes (bittersweet or half-sharp) Organic bittersweet is true to its name, bitter and sweet. It's a dark red-orange and finely ground. (Spice Shop)
Rózsa is red-orange, sweet and mildly hot, about a 4. (Spice Shop)
Penzeys half-sharp is rust colored, medium hot, a 4 to 5, and more tart than bitter.
Eros (hot) Kalustyan's is earthy and herbal with middle-of-the-mouth heat, about a 5. It's rust orange and finely ground.
Spice Shop's is bright orange and sweet. The heat slowly builds to a 4.
Szeged in the can has dark rust and earthy tone. Its heat kicks in late, about a 6.

Spain and Portugal Sweet pimentón from Murcia
Zingerman's is sweet, a touch tart; light orange, finely gound.
Spice Shop's is sweet with some tartness; dark orange.
Kalustyan's is a bit more complex than the others.
La Odalisca-Especialisimo brand is sweet, bright red, and finely ground. (Spice Shop, Kalustyan's, La Tienda)
La Odalisca-Desbinzado brand is very sweet, with a hint of smokiness, bright red-orange, and finely ground. (Spice Shop)
Smoked pimentón from LaVera Dulce (sweet) tastes smoky until it's infused in oil or added to food. It's rust colored and finely
ground. Tasted was the El Rey brand sold at The Spanish Table.
Agridulce (bittersweet) is quite bitter with a hint of sweetness and not as smoky as sweet. Not very hot. Tasted La Chinata brand. (La Tienda and Zingerman's)
Picante (hot) is sour and smoky, rust colored, about a 5 to 6 in heat. Tasted La Chinata brand.
Kalustyan's carries a ground piri piri powder that registers an 8 in heat.

France All piments d'Espelette are more coarsely ground than other pepper powders.
IGO brand is the color of orange rind, somewhat musty, ground more finely than other examples, with no perceptible heat. (The Spanish Table)
Zingerman's is red-orange, with a small flake, and a very sweet—almost fruity—taste of ripe pepper. It's mild heat, about a 4, makes the tongue tingle.
Kalustyan's is bright red-orange, with medium heat.

Italy Sweet sun-dried is mild and vegetal, rust-orange, with no heat. (Spice Shop).
Controne from Campania near the border of Basilicata starts sweet and builds to a hot 7 or 8, is a bright golden orange, and a bit coarse. It makes excellent infused oil. (Ritrovo)
The Tutto Calabria brand is very, very hot--a 10 pushing 11 on a scale of 1 to 10--a dark rusty orange, and finely ground. Another
note on its heat: as hot or hotter than cayenne, with full mouth heat that lingers on the tongue and throat. (ItalFoods)

Turkey In Turkey, Maras and Urfa peppers usually contain salt as a preservative. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration allows producers to mix 8 percent salt in both peppers. Turkish journalist Ayfer Unsal says: "Good pepper is never powdered. When I was a child, they used to pound pepper in stone mortars. Stone is still used today." So of course I went and put the peppers in my spice grinder to see if the flavor changed. Grinding seemed to cut the saltiness a bit. Formaggio Kitchen says the Turkish peppers it carries aren't salted, but its Urfa was very salty and its Maras a bit less so.
Kirmizi biber is sweet and minty, rust colored, relatively mild at about a 4 to 5, and coarsely ground. (Kalustyan's)
Maras, from near Aleppo, Syria, right across the border, has a fruity flavor slightly hotter than mild, buttery Aleppo pepper. It's a bright cherry red. Used more for flavor than for heat.
Urfa is almost black/purple, rich, and earthy—a bit bitter like coffee or chocolate, yet also sweet like molasses. Not much heat, about a 2 or 3.