In the Priorat comarca of Catalunya, “Spain” there’s a town called Ulldemolins in which there’s a bakery run by a woman named Pepi, who makes these things called bunyols de vent. Yesterday was my last day in the Priorat and I woke up thinking about them. Bunyols. Bunyols de vent from Pepi’s in Ulldemollins, 20 minutes from Cornudella, 30 minutes from our house.
So we drove out there, my two colleague-roommates (read: sisters) and I. My body swung left and right as the car hugged tight the sharp curves of the winding mountain road, but my thoughts did not waver in the least from the bunyols. The bunyols de vent. I realized halfway there that I did not actually remember them too well at all, just that they had surprised me. They had left an impression, like a shapeless dent in my memory. As we rolled up into the medieval town that I had been to just once prior, my eyes frantically scanned every street corner for something to guide me quicker to the target of our journey. The bunyols de vent. The last time I tried one was in August and I hadn’t had the chance to return for them since. But I had thought of them often. There had been something about them that made them unforgettable.
Bunyols de vent. By the time we parked the van in the square, my companions had heard me say the name many times, as if repeating it would make them more real, as if rolling the round words off my tongue would make Pepi’s more likely to be open and still serving them fresh at noon on a cold, rainy Sunday. When I spotted the pastisseria and the chain screen fluttering in the wind over its open door I quickened my stride, heading straight for the counter on which I prayed they would be displayed, steaming hot out of the fryer. The bunyols de vent.
And there indeed they are as they have been for the past century or so, which is how long Pepi, her mother, her grandmother and now her daughter have been making them. They’re really just donuts. Spoonfuls of sticky dough made with flour, butter and plenty of egg are scooped into oil, fried, then dusted with crystal sugar. I’m drawn to them like a moth to the flame, and as I size them up feverishly I tell Pepi’s daughter about my former visit months ago. She actually seems to remember. Pepi comes out and she definitely remembers. Her husband acts like he remembers, but I’m not sure he does.
I disregard the alluring disks of fried dough (orelletes) and the biscotti-type carquinyolis in which one of my companions seems particularly interested. Ca la Pepi is known around town for these, along with her chocolate bark, her turrón and her cookies; but to me these confections might as well be invisible. All I see is that bowl of fritters topping the glass counter. I order three to start and we take the bunyols, which are carefully wrapped in Pepi’s pretty gold and brown wrapping paper, to a bar in a square just a few steps away. It’s difficult to hide my anticipation. As our espressos, americanos, hot chocolates are set down in front of us I reach for the string wrapped around the lumpy package, unbinding the bow to reveal three gorgeous, golden-brown bunyols fried just minutes prior. I pick one up gingerly and take a big, purposeful bite. Within seconds it all comes rushing back and I’m wonderfully shocked all over again. Bunyols de vent!
The flavor is fine. It’s eggy and sweet with a slight hint of the clean oil in which the thing was fried. It’s very mild with no sharp flavors, making it the perfect breakfast pastry by my definition, though it is traditionally considered more of a dessert item. What makes these little puffs of fried dough so memorable is the roller-coaster ride of textures they take your tongue and face on. You close your eyes after taking that first bite, just to process it all.
The outer shell is surprisingly thin and the interior even more surprisingly hollow; there’s nothing in there but wind, hence the name. What looks like a dense ball of cake that will sink in your stomach and stay there til dinnertime is actually a brittle balloon that collapses in on itself when fractured. The fried coat is crunchy and shatters into shards upon contact with teeth, revealing the opposite side of the same layer of dough, an interior that remains surprisingly wet and eggy, but in a good way. Like when scrambled eggs are just loose and glossy enough to slip smoothly down your throat. But it doesn’t for even a second feel undercooked. In fact, to get that color and crunch, the oil had to be at exactly the right temperature and the fact that Pepi somehow keeps it there long enough to fry tons of consistently awesome bunyols every day is pretty darn impressive. As the fritter breaks and deflates between the lips, the tongue enters the hollow cave inside, sensing steam and the moisture of the dough’s pleated interior and probing around for some sort of custard that it suspects might be there, hydrating its environment. But there’s no filling other than wind. The flesh of the dough inside is wet to contrast fantastically the crunch outside, a textural play perfected by several generations. The tongue presses up against the soft sugar glued to the warm surface, coating the fritter like wet sand coats bare feet on the beach. This texture first soothes, then mixes in with the rest of the bite to offer sexy contrast to both the crunch and creaminess of the dough.
It’s such a complex series of sensations brought about by only a handful of simple ingredients. A sweet snack that has been a town favorite for so many decades, one that would make smile the the saddest of malcontents. That’s how they are, the bunyols de vent. The bunyols de vent of Ulldemolins.