What Celebration Doughnuts Mean to Spain
It’s the last day of Las Fallas, the annual festival in Valencia, Spain, that celebrates the feast of San José, and the cafe at the corner of Plaza de la Virgen has no free tables. But it’s not the traditional pan con tomate that most patrons are enjoying for breakfast on this sunny, warm morning. Next to their cups of café con leche are paper cones that bear greasy traces of buñuelos, small Spanish doughnuts. Purchased from Barbara, the Buñolera of the Plaza de la Virgen as she calls herself, they are considered among the best in town.
Barbara is from Casinos, a small municipality north of the city, but she comes to Valencia every year to make buñuelos during Las Fallas. She sets her hot oil fryer and an equally large pot of runny, yeasty dough in a small corner space a block away from Plaza de la Virgen and spends the days making calabaza or higos—pumpkin or fig—buñuelos. There is always a line of at least ten to twenty people stretching along the block to her counter. “I don’t mind the queue,” one local tells me. “I always get them from her when I am in this part of town.”
For those who don’t like to wait, there are plenty of other places to enjoy these hot, piped doughnuts—together with traditional buñolerias make-shift kiosks are selling them everywhere along major avenues of the city. Buñuelos are just as much a fixture of the festival as the mascletàs, noisy petard explosions, and the satirical niñots, giant papier-mâché dolls that make up the fallas. “It all began when, at the end of the 16th century, the city council [of Valencia] gave carpenters permission to burn the wood they didn’t need on the night of March 18th,” says Mariano Catalán, the owner of Buñoleria El Contraste, whose family has been making buñuelos for five generations. “[They called] the day Nit del Foc (Night of Fire). Women-buñoleras gathered around these fires making doughnuts that then could be dipped in [strong] spirit.” Today the night of fire is celebrated on March 19 and, instead of alcohol, buñuelos are often dipped into hot chocolate. Served with a sprinkling of powdered sugar, they are eaten during the multi-day festival celebrations—and usually for breakfast or during merienda, the afternoon snack.
While mostly consumed at the time of Las Fallas in Valencia, buñuelos are common in the rest of Spain on November 1—Dia de Todos los Santos, All Saints’ Day. In some regions they are popular at Easter. And during the rest of the year they often accompany other celebrations and ferias throughout the country. Sometimes made with sweet or savory fillings, they are, according to Almudena Villegas, a food historian and member of the Real Academia de Gastronomía, the Royal Gastronomic Academy of Spain, “a festive [kind of] pastry”.
Although often believed to be of either a Sephardi or a Moorish origin, the buñuelos are most likely the product of the Mediterranean basin as a whole. “Cato the Elder wrote about them [in the third century BCE] in De Re Rustica,” says Almudena. “He said it was an ancient recipe that came from the Sabines, the people who preceded the Romans. He called them globi—a Latin word for round—and he made them from dough filled with cheese.” Combining the two things that are culturally important to the Mediterranean region—wheat-based dough and olive oil—buñuelos endured through the centuries by becoming an integral part of various secular and religious celebrations.
While modern buñuelos come with a variety of fillings and flavors, the basic mixture of flour, yeast, water, and hot olive oil survives to this day. “It’s practically the same recipe [as it was when we started five generations ago],” says Mariano. El Contraste has been experimenting with creating doughnuts of different flavors—they’ve tried making them with orange, vanilla, and the Spanish horchata, a drink made with tiger nuts—but the traditional buñuelos de calabaza are still the most popular.
A block away from Plaza de la Virgen the line to Barbara’s shop continues to stretch as evening falls and Las Fallas approaches its last night—the Nit del Foc. Barbara lowers her hand into the pot of dough, grabs some with her fingers, and quickly flicks it off into the hot oil. She repeats the process several times until the fryer is full of irregular doughnuts. Her buñuelos aren’t round with a hole in the middle like in the rest of the city, but her patrons don’t mind. When she scoops them out, piping hot, and sprinkles them with powdered sugar they are just as delicious as you hope.