Ah, churros, the deep fried pastry that’s typically served with hot chocolate in Spain. Being in the country, of course we had to try some, and as I did, I wondered, just how these fried sticks of cholesterol came about?
Once upon a time, as the legend goes, Portuguese merchants found themselves in China for the first time tasting youtiao – elongated strips of golden, fried, salty pastry, traditionally eaten for breakfast. Intrigued, the merchants returned home and adapted their newfound snack, giving it a star-ridged shape and dousing it with sugar instead of salt.
Spanish shepherds were then thought to have popularised churros by concocting the mixture of flour, water and oil over an open fire. Finally, when the conquistadors went to South America, they ran into the elixir culture of chocolate and returned to create the popular tradition of Spanish churros con chocolate.
Now, just how did the name ‘churro’ come about? Well, the history appears sketchy, but one scenario again points to the shepherds, who allegedly named it after their breed of sheep, the Navajo-Churro. Lending this story some credit is the fact the Navajo-Churro are descendants from the Churra sheep of the Iberian peninsula, who, it is said, have horns in the shape of churros.
Today, churros are popular in Spain, Portugal, France, the Philippines, Ibero-America and in southwestern United States, all in their various forms. In Cuba, you’ll find guava-filled churros, in Mexico they’re filled with dulce de leche (sweetened condensed milk) and the Uruguayans like to fill them with cheese.
The Spanish churros with chocolate – which began sometime between the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th-century – are particularly traditional in Madrid (where they’re allegedly superb), although they can be found all over the country. My first introduction was in Granada, Andalucía, followed by Ronda, Seville and Sanlúcar de Barrameda. I then passed through Madrid and had the good fortune to sample a few in the far north, in Asturias.
Here I’ve found the churros are thinner, have the definitive star ridges and unlike those in the south, they are doused with a generous amount of sugar. Now churros are not particularly my thing, as I don’t like sweet food at breakfast (when they’re typically eaten). However, of all those I’ve tasted, my favourite is in Ronda, in the country’s south at a place called Churrería Dana.
A close runner-up is on a street corner in Sanlúcar de Barrameda across from the bus station, where they are piped and fried in front of you. I haven’t quite got into the style of the north and I must have missed some good opportunities in Madrid. Although if you’re ever in Ronda, I urge you to go to Churrería Dana, in Calle Espinillo.
It’s a good place to experience this popular Spanish tradition, as the service is fast, the churros are fresh, hot, whopping and presented in large spirals that look a bit like the frozen trail of a Catherine wheel. The hot chocolate is also the most chocolatey I’ve tasted.