Paprika is the familiar mild, red spice and often called pimento. Paprika powder
is an important ingredient for many cooks.
Although it originated in the New World, this particular variety was developed in Hungary.
The first paprika peppers to reach that country are thought to have been introduced by the Bulgarians who brought them from Turkey. The earliest reference appears to be from 1604, where it called them the Turkish pepper.
The name paprika was derived from the Latin piper, meaning pepper, and through Slavic diminutive forms, did not come into its current use until 1775. Paprika has not always been the mild pepper we know now.
In 1859, a process was invented which allowed for discarding the cores and seeds which contain most of the pungent principal, capsaicin, which dramatically reduced its pungency.
The commercial grades given by Lang are:
- best (which is exquisitely delicate)
- delicate (noble sweet)
- rose, and
The two principal growing areas in Hungary are in the south, with one centered on the city of Szeged and the other on the neighbourhood of Kaloska, on the Danube.
The Nobel Prize winner, Albert Szent-Györgyi, scientifically established in 1932 what folk healers had known for centuries: peppers contain a valuable substance identified as ascorbic acid.
This discovery started with Albert’s interest in the adrenal gland. He noticed that the symptoms of Addison’s disease were the same as for plants when their respiratory systems are harmed. He evenually isolated the compound hexuronic acid from plants that he thought was the contributor to this ailment.
He then found the same chemical in the adrenal glands of animals, but only minuscule amounts could be collected from plants or animals. Isolating it from plants was even more difficult; so to further his study, he began to collect the adrenal glands of animals by going to the US and spending a year in Minnesota slaughterhouses.
At the end of that stay, he was only able to collect twenty grams of pure hexuronic acid from the several hundred kilos of glands he had collected.
Although the quantity was too little for any extensive experimentation, the Hungarian scientist was able to establish the structure, which turned out to be vitamin C. He called it “a-scorbic” acid since it cured scorbutic disease.
That discovery added more importance to isolating this vitamin, which scientists around the world had been trying to do. They were only able to isolate minuscule amounts from citrus fruits.
Szent-Györgyi set aside his discovery to pursue his main research of intracellular metabolism. However, one evening, his wife prepared a dish of paprika pods. Hungary was well-established as the paprika capital of Europe and Szent-Györgyi lived, and did his research, in the middle of this cultivation.
He did not care for paprika as a food; and so he took his plate of paprika pods into his laboratory, not wanting to offend his wife. As he stared at the mound of peppers, he realized that he had never tested the pepper dish for its compounds. The results surprised him.
For the next few weeks he had turned his place into a paprika-mashing center, involving his assistants and his entire family. Vendors were also very happy as he bought up cartloads of paprika.
He extracted and filled flask after flask, each of 50-liter capacity. In one week alone, he managed to extract half a kilogram of pure vitamin C, an unthinkable quantity at the time.
The scientist found that a Hungarian paprika contained five to six times more vitamin C than an orange or lemon. The breakthrough made him a national hero and ultimately won him the Nobel Prize.
By 1945, Erno Obermayer, an agricultural researcher, developed a mild paprika that launched Hungary’s now famous paprika industry. This pepper can grow only in perfect conditions of sunshine, warmth, and rain, with the total daily average temperatures consistently adding up to 2,900°C at the end of the five month growing season, found only in Szeged and Kalocsa.
Those climatic combinations cannot be reached anywhere else in the world as all total less than 2,700°C, producing a mediocre crop. So well guarded was this crop that no seeds or plants were allowed to leave the country.
However, some seeds did find their way with immigrants to the US in 1941. These were planted in Yakima, Washington, and St. James Parish, Louisiana; but the climatic conditions still were not met. Therefore, the world has come to rely on the more pungent version called cayenne pepper.
Paprika peppers are also called tomato or box peppers because of its shape. There are many different kinds of paprika peppers, but usually they develop into a boxy fruit about the size of a tangerine.
They are convoluted and wrinkled, which makes peeling difficult. Fresh paprikas make a good stuffing pepper with its thick meaty walls. It has a bell pepper flavour with a little piquancy. Since it is the seeds that are ground into the powder, whole paprikas are found only as a specialty item.