Pumpkin churros & Spanish hot chocolate
Who doesn’t love a good churro? Crispy, crunchy perfection, sprinkled with sugar and dipped in hot chocolate they are one of the many gifts of Spain to the world.
I personally love churros so much that it is hard for me to express it in words. All I can say is that my borderline obsession with them is so big that I was minutes away from starting a churro food truck, but alas, Frenchie proposed and I couldn’t say no. Long story short, I ended up selling the little truck I bought and that was the end of “Lola, Churros, and Co.” Maybe I’ll pick it up in the future because seriously, the whole concept is amazing!
All this to say that if there is one pastry item I know, it’s churros. Seriously, people, I am quite the churro connoisseur. Coincidentally they are one of the first things I ever learned how to make, and mastered. While I am well aware that most children would have been experimenting with cookies and brownies, I was a bit precocious on the cooking side.
I started “cooking”, by the ripe ol’ age of 3 with my grandmother, mother, and aunt, or on my own with the help of my trusted little Easy Bake Oven; which I still think is the best toy ever created, and wish they would bring them back before I have kids of my own. By the time I was 9, I felt I needed to graduate to a pot full of piping hot oil.
Funnily enough, I doubt I ever burned myself back then, which is more than I have to say for myself nowadays. I have more burn marks over my arms and hands than I would like to admit. They are both a true testament to my profession and to how clumsy I am.
It is bad that I even had an assistant baker who would always joke and say I would go straight to heaven because I had been paying for the purgatory flames in modest sums for the past years; but since the Pope has declared there is no purgatory, I guess it has all been in vain.
But enough about me, let’s dive into some churro history, shall we?
The origin of churros.
Like I said before churros really are one of Spain’s many gifts to the world. Although I can’t really blame other countries trying to claim them as their own. It’s so crazy that I even read the most absurd and unfounded claims that churros are an adaptation of a Chinese pastry called youtiao that supposedly traveled with Portuguese missionaries to the Iberian peninsula.
Let me just tell you that as interesting as that sounds, it’s hardly credible, because well no evidence suggests that it so. And why look to the Far East – for a “far” fetched theory – when the answer lies so much closer to home.
Hispania, how the Romans referred to the Iberian peninsula, was one of the most romanized of all the Roman provinces. This meant that Roman customs, dress, traditions and overall culture were well rooted in Iberian soil. The same stands true for food.
Roman food was anything if not fascinating and refined, especially towards the second half of the 2nd-century A.C.. in fact, Romans saw food as a way to demonstrate one’ wealth and power. Lavish dinner parties were all the rage and a great opportunity to wow guests close business partners – I guess not much has changed since then. Think flamingo tongues or roasted giraffe legs served with plumped up dormice stuffed with other dormice and dipped in honey –gastronomical dormice inception if you will.
And not only the wealthy would engage in this kind of dinner party, if you wanted to make a name for yourself in whatever social class you were, you would invite whoever you thought could help you advance. In fact, it is said that it was the social climbers who would serve the most exotic and opulent of dinners.
Well almost. You see not everybody had kitchens in their houses. Many Romans lived in Insulae (apartment buildings) and because of safety hazards; ie fires, most were not equipped with kitchens, but that didn't stop many tenants to equip their dwelling with a makeshift fire pit inside. Long story short, let me tell you it was the Romans who came up with the Firefighter profession.
Most Insulae had Tabernae a cross between a fast food joint, a SevenEleven, and laundromat all rolled into one. There the plebs would get their clothes washed, buy food or hygiene products; I’d rather not go into it in too much detail but FYI hair bleach and whitening dental products amongst others were made out of processed human urine collected in amphoras all over the city and gladiator sweat mixed with essential oils was considered the best anti-aging face cream.
Ohh, and if you think that fast food is a new trend, think again. Romans enjoyed a meal comprised of minced pork meat, with raisins and pine nuts and lettuce stuffed in bread smeared with a sauce resembling mustard. Sounds awfully similar to our modern burger, doesn’t it?
Yet the food of the Roman Republic was very different, it made no distinction between classes. The Republican era was all about austerity. Austerity in dress, food, luxury, etc. This was the way of the early Romans. It was something that was still regarded of great value in later centuries despite how Oriental luxury had carved its way into Roman civilization.
But it is in this period where we can find the origin of the humble churro. There are very few documented sweets dating back to the Roman Republic. But amongst the few, one stands out. Globi, the grandpappy of our beloved churro.
The earliest recorded recipe was handed down by none other than Cato the Elder, a well respected Roman Senator, that could also boast having served his country as a reputed soldier. He was a hardcore patriot and lover of all things austere and Roman and was therefore intent in fighting off that encroaching lavish and luxurious lifestyle so rampant amongst the Greeks.
As a historian and a man of reason, Cato the Elder, determined to preserve Roman values, wrote “Origines” and “De Agri Cultura”, both treaties on Roman history, way of life, food production and values. Like any good soldier, when not serving his country in war, Cato was tending to his lands, or well, let's face it, he was overseeing that his lands were being taken care of properly, and was therefore well aware of how to make the earth more prosperous.
In “De Agri Cultura”, Cato writes the recipe (amongst many others) for his beloved Globi. It’s a recipe that I have been meaning to tackle for this blog as well, and promise I will in the near future. Globi are a type of fritters made with pound cheese and flour, that are then dipped in honey and sprinkled generously with poppy seeds.
If you are thinking that they sound very Middle Eastern, you wouldn’t be mistaken. Middle Eastern cuisine was also heavily influenced by Rome, as the area as a whole was almost all under Roman Rule at some point in time. In fact, you can find delicious sweets drenched in honey or syrups around the whole of the Middle East reminiscent of good ol’ Roman days.
But let's get back to Spain.
There are few things that are considered quite as Spanish as a good old churro, especially if they are dunked in piping hot delicious thick chocolate, called “chocolate a la taza”. And while some similarities can be drawn to Globi, and other pastries, Churros are a category of their own.
It has been said that it was the shepherds of Castille who came up with the recipe. Sheepherding and consequently the wool industry in central and western Spain was one of the most important economic motors in the whole of the Iberian peninsula. So much so that a powerful council was established around it called “El Honrado Concejo de la Mesta”, literally “The Honorable Council of the Mesta”
Sheep in Spain have always been transhumant (migrant) between the southern provinces of Extremadura and Andalusia to the central massif or plateau of Castile and Leon. Although this practice can be traced all the way back to the Bronze Age, it was really institutionalized after the “Reconquista” when the Christian Kingdom of Castile started expanding and conquering Moorish lands. The border between the warring nations was a 100 km wide strip too insecure for settlers to setup farmland, yet perfect for transhumant sheep who could quickly get out of the way if conflict ensued.
A couple of centuries later, once the area was secured by Castile, the grasslands had become desirable to many a farmer. But the powerful “sheep-elites” and herders were not about to roll over and abandon the lands that brought them so much wealth.
In 1273 king Alfonso X the Wise convened all ranchers and herders in the town of Gualda, and thus "El Honrado Concejo de la Mesta” was born. The king granted many privileges to the Mesta, including the Cañadas, or rights-of-way for the sheep and other livestock. The Cañadas were to be protected by the Crown and Castilian law FOREVER. If you’re wondering, it still exists.
Sure sheepherders prefer to transport their sheep by rail, but STILL make use of the royal passage once a year. You can even see the ever so cute sheep pass through busy Madrid with their herders and the distinctive cries they make to moving in an orderly fashion.
Ohh and by the way Alfonso X the Wise is also credited to have invented tapas, amongst many other things. How's that for a monarch?
A tantalizing story I know, but what does this have to do with churros? Well for starters one of the preferred sheep breeds of the Mesta herders was the Churra, hence the name churro. They are a larger breed with soft long silky hair that happens to be a great milk producer. While traveling with their animals, shepherds didn't have access to town ovens, and therefore couldn't make their own bread. A campfire and some oil resolved the problem by allowing them to fry up long pieces of batter. Churros were born.
But like all things sweet in Spain, it was actually the Order of St. Claire that took the humble pastry to new heights, or dare I say heavens? From their convent, in Valladolid, the nuns would sell fresh and very cheap churros to passers-by to make enough money to feed the poor and needy. If you would like to read more about Spanish convent sweets check out this post.
By the 17th century, churros had become street food. They were being sold in small portable stalls, called Alojas, equipped with wood burning stoves and collapsible tables all over Spain. They were the best treat to have on Sunday after church. Not long after that shops devoted to only making churros, and their cousin, the Porra, started sprouting all over the country.
But the funny thing is that despite being dirt cheap and common, churros were considered a treat for both poor and rich alike. In fact, the made their own cameo in 1623 in the famed Spanish cookbook "Arte de Cocina, pastelería, vizcochería y conservería" written by none other than Francisco Martínez Montiño, head chef to both King Phillip III and King Phillip the IV.
The fact that they are as popular today (if not more) is a testament of how good they really are. Who could imagine that simple flour, water, oil, and a sprinkle of sugar and sometimes cinnamon could pump out such a great yet humble little pastry? Me I’ve gone for a slightly “healthier” version, or so I tell myself by adding some pumpkin.
So now that you know the history of churros, I leave you with my Pumpkin Churros.