I'm happiest when my hair smells like fire. Not, like, actually in flames atop my head because that would be both painful and awful-smelling. I'm talking firewood. I'm talking barbecue. I'm talking smoked paprika—pimentón de la Vera to be precise. If my hair smells like fire, I've been outside, usually tending to a large hunk of meat like a pork shoulder or a brisket that I'll feed to my friends after the sun goes down. It takes a long day of tending charcoal chimneys, obsessively checking temperatures to make sure the smoker stays steady and slow, mopping the meat so it doesn't dry out during its transmogrification from raw flesh to sumptuous, slumped barbecue that I'm so happy to share. The smoke and soot creep deeply into whatever I'm wearing—not to mention my hair—and linger even after it's washed. This is a tangible reminder of blissful hours spent. If I don't have a lot of those, I cheat with pimentón.
Yes, we've all had paprika from that decades-old shaker at the back of the cupboard. It's little more than red dust by now, dutifully shaken atop potato salad and deviled eggs because that's just what you do. But that paprika is to Spanish pimentón as Dust Bowl Kansas is to Oz.
Hungarian paprika—which is what many of us grew up thinking of as full-stop paprika—is a damn fine spice when it's made and stored well. It's comprised of peppers dried in the sun (or often in modern time, a drying room), then de-stemmed, seeded, and ground. It fades with time into the ghosts of capiscums past.
Spanish pimentón is also made with dried peppers, but if it's got "de la Vera" appended to its name, that process happens over smoldering local oak in the town of Jarandilla de la Vera. It's the law, and it's one that results in an ingredient that's become both comforting and essential to me. A sprinkle of it makes my omelets and breakfast potatoes into a minor feast. Stirred into oil, it sparks vegetables and mushrooms to life, and adds fiery depth to sweet syrups. Stirred into hot cereal with a ribbon of butter and crunchy salt, it's a revelation. I can taste the ash of craft that occurred in a far away and it warms my heart.
I know that's an awful lot of baggage to saddle a simple spice with, but I'm OK with that. Someday I might even pack a suitcase and go there myself to see it happen, but until then, pimentón de la Vera will occupy a warm place in my heart—and on my plate.