Argentina and the politics of pastry
When it comes to food and drink, Argentineans are probably best known for their obsession with asado (barbecue), and their inability to survive more than a few hours without sipping yerba mate (an indigenous herbal tea) from a communal gourd. The scandalous names given to their beloved breakfast pastries are routinely overlooked. Until now…
“I’m popping out to the bakery for some friar’s balls,” my roommate said, casually. “Want anything?”
“You could get me a few little cannons,” I replied.
Before moving to Argentina, I don’t think I’d ever even contemplated having a conversation like this. But after a year living and working in Mendoza, it was as ordinary as taking a three-hour nap at lunchtime or kissing my guy friends on the cheek.
The most important meal of the day
Regardless of where you live or what you earn, breakfast in Argentina means one thing and one thing only: a cup of (often fairly nasty) coffee and a couple of freshly baked pastries or facturas. Argentineans are among the world’s biggest consumers of baked goods, averaging 72 kilos per person per year. And there’s a panaderia (bakery) on almost every street. (Ask your expert guide to recommend local hotspots.)
While the most common breakfast pastry is a mini-croissant known, rather boringly, as a medialuna (half-moon, some say this is a reference to the Islamic crescent), there are a whole host of more sinister-sounding options. In addition to the bolas de fraile (friar’s balls, a sweet, round bun filled with custard, quince jelly, or dulce de leche) and cañoncitos (little cannons, puff pastry cones filled with dulce de leche) mentioned earlier, you can also find freshly baked:
- Bombas (bombs), Argentina’s subversive take on profiteroles or chocolate eclairs
- Libritos (little books), folded layers of pastry that were intended as a criticism of staterun education
- Vigilantes, straight croissants topped with custard and quince jelly that were said to resemble a policeman’s baton
- Cremonas, rectangular puff pastries scored with incisions and “curled into a circle to make an infinity sign out of the repeated letter A for Anarchism”
- Suspiros de monja (nun’s sighs) another name for bolas de fraile
What’s in a name?
By now, you’ll probably have gathered that there are some pretty strong anti-establishment undertones in Argentina’s beloved pastries. They all have their roots in the birth of trade unionism in Argentina in the 1880s, and specifically the formation of the Bakers’ Union (Sociedad Cosmopolita de Resistencia y Colocación de Obreros Panaderos) in 1886.
By this point, Argentina was responsible for 20% of global wheat production and was known as ‘The World’s Silo’. But, as Kevin Vaughn reports in this fascinating Life & Thyme Post piece:
Despite the abundance of wheat and flour, the domestic market was unstable. Prices were guided by the whims of landowners selling on the international market and bread factory owners who pocketed massive profit margins. While the criollos (people of mixed European, African and Amerindian lineage) were content to sustain themselves with a steady diet of meat, the new European working class considered bread to be a staple. A loaf of bread became a marker of status and a source of civic strife.
None of this went down well with Ettore Mattei and Errico Malatesta, the Italian-born leaders of the Obreros Panaderos. Mattei and Malatesta were diehard anarchists who had been expelled from Italy for their beliefs. Malatesta in particular remains one of the most important figures in the history of Anarchism. Despite spending only five years in Argentina, he had an enormous impact on Argentine labor movements which, some would say, endures to this day. And who better to define his cause than the man himself?
Anarchism is the abolition of exploitation and oppression of man by man, that is, the abolition of private property and government; Anarchism is the destruction of misery, of superstitions, of hatred. Therefore, every blow given to the institutions of private property and to the government, every exaltation of the conscience of man, every disruption of the present conditions, every lie unmasked, every part of human activity taken away from the control of the authorities, every augmentation of the spirit of solidarity and initiative, is a step towards Anarchism…
… The main plank of anarchism is the removal of violence from human relations. It is life based on freedom of the individual, without the intervention of the gendarme. For this reason we are the enemies of capitalism which depends on the protection of the gendarme to oblige workers to allow themselves to be exploited – or even to remain idle and go hungry when it is not in the interest of the bosses to exploit them. We are therefore enemies of the State which is the coercive violent organization of society.
In an attempt to bring about the peaceful social revolution they longed for, the Obreros Panaderos printed secret newspapers and journals and arranged no fewer than 106 strikes between 1887 and 1907.
Bakers, explains historian Lucas Poy:
Had an advantage during strikes because their work was highly skilled and performed manually. You couldn’t bring in strikebreakers like they did with other industries. There were a lot of bread factories that were working with large-scale productions which required a specific skill set. That gave bakers negotiating power that other workers didn’t have. The baker syndicates were the largest, most powerful, and most aggressive.
A lasting legacy
While the Obreros Panaderos didn’t manage to eliminate Argentina’s class system, they did put a dent in it by extracting significant wage increases from the powers-that-be. And they left an indelible mark on the national psyche by provocatively renaming the pastries they produced. (Friar’s balls were previously known as Berlinesas for example.)
What started out as a marketing gimmick stuck. And while the bombs, cannons, and nun’s sighs might have lost much of their explosive bite, they remain as delicious and in-demand as ever.
Even the name factura (which in all other contexts means bill or invoice) remains a subtle reminder of the worth of the bakers’ work. The term is used only in Argentina: all other Spanish-speaking nations refer to pastries as pasteles.
Something to chew on over your next Argentine breakfast…