During Antroxu (as carnival celebrations are referred to in Asturias) the staple dessert in every Asturian home is frixuelos. Although recipes vary by the area where they are made (some add milk, some don’t, some add anisette, broth...), frixuelos essentially consist of a very thin pancake (the thinner, the better), fried in just a dash of olive oil, golden in colour and tender. They are very similar to the French crêpes but smaller in diameter –some even say the Asturian are the precursors of the French ones-.
Although just a few years ago it felt as if the art of making frixuelos was about to disappear, only kept alive by home cooks, nowadays almost every chef in the Principality has rescued them from oblivion and it is easy to find them in most menus across the region.
The origins of the Antroxu celebrations are far from clear. It has been traditionally believed that, just like carnivals, they can be traced back to the Greek and Roman festivities held to honour Pan and Dionysius, with some authors arguing that carnivals have their origins as far back as 5,000 years ago, around the time of Egyptians and Sumerians. Etymologically speaking, most agree that carnival is derived from the Latin “carnem levare”, which means something along the lines of “neglecting the flesh”. In Asturian language, l’Antroxu and its variations (antroido, antroiro, antroyu, antrueyu or entrogio) also have a Latin root, introitus, which means entry.
As well as carnival, Antroxu also refers to the parts of the pig which during carnival are given as presents to neighbours that have helped with the seasonal pig’s slaughter or to those who haven’t done it themselves. After all, Antroxu is all about eating well and in abundance in order to endure the forthcoming sacrifices of Lent, which starts the day after, on Ash Wednesday.
In Asturias, Antroxu’s classic menu would consist of pork in its many incarnations, such as Asturian stew (chorizo, bacon, black pudding et al) or a full pig’s head. For in Asturias, the nose-to-tail movement heralded by many like Fergus Henderson from London’s St. John, has been performed for centuries.
In my granny’s village in Western Asturias, the menu was invariably pig’s head (presented on the table in all its glory) with sides consisting of baked potatoes (named cachelos, the same as in neighbouring Galicia) and cimos (parsnip’s sprouts) and for dessert, you guessed it, frixuelos.
It was a custom in some villages in Western Asturias to make a scarecrow named Don Carnal or Antroiro, dressed up in rags, his head a parsnip. As my dad remembers it, everyone regarded Don Carnal as a folk who ate a lot, kind and smiley. Traditionally, it was the guys in the village who would build Don Carnal and put it up next to some other neighbour’s door or house. It was them who decided what neighbour would be awarded Don Carnal based on who was the grumpiest, the one who couldn’t take a joke and would make a scene, therefore embarrassing himself in front of the rest and being laughed at for the next few days.
Nowadays every town and municipality holds its local parade and celebrations where carnival-goers dress up and sing and have fun, for that is what Antroxu is all about. The cities where Antroxu is said to be more popular these days are Gijón and Avilés.
Asturian Frixuelos, a step by step recipe
I still have a vivid memory of the first time I tried preparing frixuelos - it was a complete disaster. I was in London and Pancake Day celebrations were in full swing, which are on the same day as Antroxu Tuesday. This was the day that frixuelos would be had almost religiously back home, and I just decided to give it a go. The problem was that my little North London kitchen had too much nostalgia but not a decent frying pan. And that was the recipe to my sad disappointment, making me almost give up forever on the art of making frixuelos and leaving my work colleagues without the treat of trying the Asturian Pancakes I had been annoucing for so long.
To avoid all this, it is crucial that the dough is left to rest for at least one hour, as is having a decent non-stick frying pan. My mum -who stood by my side on the other end of our skype call listening to my whining- even went as far buying me a special dedicated frixuelo frying pan in an artisan's market in Vegadeo, Western Asturias, which I hold very dearly. It is basically a cast iron pan, very thin and flat and, I can't stress it enough, non-stick.
Yield: between 12 and 15 frixuelos / 6 people
4 medium organic eggs
500ml whole -ideally fresh- organic milk
Zest of one lemon (optional)
1 tbsp anisette La Asturiana (optional)
2 tbsp sugar (optional)
A pinch of salt
Fillings (whipped cream, sugar, honey, chocolate spread, jams, confitures...)
In a big bowl, beat together the eggs and milk and add the sugar and salt until incorporated. Sieve the flour –to avoid lumps- and whisk it in and mix well until they are well incorporated. Then add anisette (you can buy La Asturiana's here) and lemon.
All the ingredients are well mixed when you get a soft, runny and lump-free mix. Cover and let it rest for at least one hour, ideally longer. (This will make dealing with frying the paste much easier).
To fry the frixuelos, heat a non-stick pan to medium heat and while you wait, whisk the batter slowly to make sure there are no lumps. Add a dash of olive oil and spread it across the pan with a brush or rolled kitchen roll (I use the latter). When warm enough, ladle the runny batter into the pan (3/4 tablespoons, the amount is pretty intuitive).
At this point being fast and a calm multi-tasker is key. Hold up the pan and swirl to make sure the runny batter covers the base of the pan and doesn’t get stuck in the centre. As soon as you see the rims turning golden, you can flip it to cook on the other side. I use a flat wooden spoon, some people use tongs or slotted spoons. It is very delicate and each person needs to find whatever works best. Tilting the pan usually works and prevents the paste from sticking. My grandma used to flip them over in the air, just by swinging the pan, but everyone knows that grandmothers are in a different league.
Each frixuelo takes under a minute to make on each side. Usually frixuelos are piled-up in a single plate where they keep warm. Continue with the rest of the batter, whisking it before ladling if needed.
You can serve them warm or cold -they reheat very well- and they are super versatile. You can have them on its own or fill them with almost anything. From whipped cream, to sugar or honey, jams and confitures, lemon curd, chocolate spread… you name it. In Asturian kitchens the pile of frixuelos is presented on the table in one single plate and each person takes its own and fills it with whatever they like the most.