I flung the roulette wheel anticlockwise, sending the golden ticker spinning over dozens of white and yellow numbers from zero to 10. To the hypnotic sound of a heartbeat-fast tick, tick, tick, I watched with bated breath as the marker deliberated over my fate. An inch to the right and I’d be rewarded with a 10, the highest and most sought-after number on the wheel; an inch to the left, and I’d leave with nothing.
It was a hot August afternoon on northern Spain’s Salinas beach, and bikini-wearing crowds had gathered behind me while I gambled for Guillermo Pelayo’s famous barquillos, wafer-thin, vanilla-scented biscuits oozing with warm honey. Traditionally, customers pay a set fee to spin the barquillero’s roulette wheel. Whatever number the marker lands on is the number of wafer biscuits you win for your set fee. If the marker lands on zero, you leave with nothing and the barquillero gets to keep the money.
With a cruel final click – and the near-audible sound of my spectators craning their necks in unison – the ticker slowed to a stop over a canary-yellow number three. My toes buried in the sand and the smell of saltwater and vanilla filling the air, I took a bite of my winnings, sending a splodge of gooey honey running down my chin. That day, chance – or was it destiny? – had granted me not one, but three of Spain’s last traditional wafer biscuits.
Pelayo sells his wafer biscuits along Salinas beach, just as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather did before him
Guillermo Pelayo was just a boy when he gambled away his first barquillo. Dressed in crisp white overalls and carrying a giant red tin that held the roulette wheel and biscuits on his back, Pelayo began plying the length of Salinas beach – a 1,200m stretch of metallic blue crashing onto the dark golden sand of Spain’s Asturian coast – at the age of 10. “I was shy at first,” Pelayo explained as we made our way along Salinas’ foaming shoreline, which was now bobbing with wetsuit-clad surfers. “I didn’t like everyone looking at me, but I’m used to it now,” he said with a smile.
Almost 50 years on, Pelayo still sells his wafer biscuits along Salinas beach daily during the summer months, just as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather did before him. “My family has sold barquillos to four Asturian generations,” Pelayo said as he placed his 100-year-old roulette tin, or bombo in Spanish, onto the sand. “This tin was my father’s. He gave it to me before he passed away.”
The oval-shaped bombo, which can weigh up to 40kg when full, is not only topped with a detachable roulette wheel, but it also serves as a cool and dry place to store hundreds of wafer biscuits, making it possible for a barquillero to sell a significant amount in one outing. “It’s extremely heavy,” said Pelayo, as he laced his arms through the leather straps and hoisted the enormous red bombo bearing his family name and two black-and-white images of a young Pelayo and his father selling barquillos onto his hunched back. “But it’s how we’ve always done it.”
While barquillos can be traced back to the beginning of Christianity in Spain, the tradition of gambling for them started much later. According to Benjamin Cavarca, owner of the Barquillero Museum in Cantabria and the former owner of a barquillo factory, Spanish street vendors brought back the bombo from France, where it had been in use as early as 1790.
“French street vendors used roulette tins to sell all kinds of pastries and sweets,” Cavarca told me. “When our barquilleros started travelling to France, they saw how popular the game was and brought it back to Spain.” The roulette became an instant hit on the streets of late 19th-Century Spain, particularly with young soldiers trying to impress women. “Selling barquillos suddenly became a social event,” Cavarca said. “Soldiers would challenge women to a game as a way to flirt, and groups of friends spent hours playing.”
As Pelayo set off along the white-hot sand, a lady in her 70s made her way over, shouting his name and waving a crumpled five euro note in the air. “I was just a teenager when I first bought [a barquillo] from Pelayo,” the lady told me as she took a sniff of her honey-drenched winnings with eyes closed. “If it were up to me, there’d be a statue of him on Salinas beach. He’s a hero.”
There’s nothing else like it
Another customer, who used to buy from Pelayo’s father before him, told me why these small golden biscuits are so special. “The Pelayos’ barquillos have a unique texture and flavour,” she said. “There’s nothing else like it.”
At Pelayo’s workshop earlier that morning, I’d asked the secret to a perfect barquillo, which is made with flour, water and sugar. “I can’t reveal my exact recipe,” Pelayo said. “But the key is high-quality natural ingredients and our special irons.”
Pelayo’s secret barquillo recipe was handed down to him from his great-grandfather, who began the Pelayo family wafer business in 1890. The long iron rods – which require strong arms to manually flip the wafer-thin biscuits – are the same ones his father and grandfather used. “We bought new, lighter irons a few years ago, but we soon went back to the old ones,” Pelayo said as he pushed down on a charred hotplate inside his bakery, housed in a small room behind his childhood home in the nearby city of Avilés, sending dribbles of sizzling dough into the open flames below. “They just didn’t achieve the same texture as our old ones.”
Today, Pelayo is one of the few vendors left in Spain who makes his wafers entirely by hand, using the tools and ingredients that have changed little since the 1800s. But it wasn’t always that way. In the late 19th Century, gambling wafer vendors were ubiquitous in parks, town squares and beaches across Spain, as were those selling artisanal ice cream and roasted chestnuts.
“When my grandfather was young, there were barquilleros everywhere,” said Pelayo. “They were very popular. My great-grandfather even travelled to Paris selling his.” Quickly gaining international fame for their delicious wafer recipes and unusual selling methods, many barquilleros travelled through Europe selling and gambling their sweet treats. However, the rise of Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship marked the beginning of the end for Spain’s gambling wafer vendors.
Franco ruled from 1939 to 1975 and led the country to a nationwide recession and food shortages, leaving many barquillero families unable to continue with the profession. As Spain’s economy started to improve in the 1980s, many vendors opted for more secure jobs in factories or bakeries. Today, Pelayo is widely believed to be one of only two remaining gambling wafer vendors left in Spain, along with the Cañas family in Madrid.
While these unique street food sweets are now found in bakeries and ice cream shops across the country, Pelayo insists that store-bought barquillos are no match for his artisanal ones. “The wafers you buy in a shop aren’t made by hand, nor do they use the traditional recipe,” said Pelayo. “They don’t look or taste the same.”
Every morning, the 59-year-old wakes up at 04:00 to prepare between 300 and 400 barquillos by hand
While food shortages are no longer a threat, today Pelayo faces new challenges. An expensive and time-consuming production process and low sale prices (for those who don’t wish to test their luck with the roulette wheel, Pelayo sells the biscuits for just €0.70 apiece) mean he has to work long hours to make a living. Every morning, the 59-year-old wakes up at 04:00 to prepare between 300 and 400 barquillos by hand, a gruelling task that takes a minimum of six hours. He’ll then spend the rest of the day selling his wafers along Salinas beach, returning only when he has sold all of them. Pelayo fears that this way of life just isn’t sustainable for the next generation.
“I love what I do,” said Pelayo, “but I wouldn’t want this life for my children. It’s just too hard.” While Pelayo’s son and daughter grew up learning how to make barquillos, they’re both pursuing professional careers, meaning Spain’s more-than-130-year-old barquillo tradition could disappear when he and the Cañas family retire. “I have no doubt this tradition will die with me,” said Pelayo. “But I’ll continue as long as I can.”
The coronavirus pandemic has added extra strain to Pelayo’s already struggling business. Unable to sell his biscuits for almost three months due to Spain’s lockdown earlier this year, Pelayo is afraid that a second coronavirus wave could seal his fate. “I don’t know if my business would survive another lockdown,” Pelayo told me. “I rely on the beach being open. Without that, I have no way of selling my barquillos.” For now, though, he continues to sell his wafers on the beach wearing a mask, something he is still getting used to. “I find it hard to breathe in this when it gets really hot,” said Pelayo, pointing to his mask. “But the show must go on.”
Next year will mark Pelayo’s 50th anniversary of selling barquillos along Salinas beach. Despite the challenges brought on by a global pandemic and withering margins, Pelayo continues to make and sell his beloved barquillo.
When I asked him whether he’d ever hang up hisroulette tin for good, he looked at me with a warm smile and said, “This is my life,” said Pelayo. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Living Culture is a BBC Travel series that reveals a surprising truth about a place’s cultural heritage through the work of one inspiring character.
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