Tuesday, 31 January 2012

“Killing me softly chicken” and Dog for dinner

(Warning: this may not be everyone’s taste) 

When in a place that is proud of their tradition, a few oddities are bound to be found. This is the best way I can put it. Sagada along with its Animist ways has a few culinary ceremonies that they hold on to, which would throw WWF and Greenpeace up in arms. It has to be remembered that this is tradition, which dates back for centauries, and something that the Sagadan people are proud of. Gohan and his sister invited us for dinner at Bana’s Café and cooked us some local delicacies, including….

Gohan and Rob in Bana's Cafe

Dog meat (asocena) is commonly available on menus in the Mountain province and it gets even more bizarre then this the more rural you go. Bats and ants are not uncommon foods for local tribes. It’s understandable, as larger protein sources tend to become scarce when in dense rainforests. Chickens and pigs are saved only for special occasions.

So how did eating dog come about? Well, my source of information has come directly from Sagadans who eat dog on a regular bases. They informed me that dogs were originally kept for hunting and protection. Before war or during a time of crisis a dog would be sacrificed as it was and is still believed, the spirit of the dog will offer protection. According to research, the number of tribal wars and internal conflict in the Mountain Province is directly proportional to the number of slaughtered family dogs.

Times of unsettlement between tribes still continues to this day. The last feud was between Sagada and Bontoc ten years ago and resulted in the loss of three lives. Dogs were sacrificed thousands of years ago, continue to be sacrificed, and will continue to be sacrificed for the right reasons. The dilemma that is being faced by the people of the mountain province is the growing demand to see dog meat on the menus of local restaurants. The dogs are not sacrificed for any other reason then the consumption of their meat. A law was passed in 1998 as part of the Philippines Animal Welfare Act, stating that dogs should not be killed unless it is part of a religious ceremony (and a few other reasons which are not relevant in this topic more info: http://askville.amazon.com/countries-people-eat-dogs/AnswerViewer.do?requestId=415239). This resulted in a large number of restaurants being shut down in Baguio, Bontoc, and surrounding towns of the Cordilleras. You are now less likely to see Asocena on the menu in Baguio then in a smaller more rural town, as it is harder for these restaurants to be regulated by the law. In most cases, the police of these smaller towns see it as tradition, and do nothing to report it. The locals deem the clamp down on asocena a threat to traditional ways.

…So asocena meat was for dinner. It was actually meat from a dog, which had been sacrificed the day before for the annual Meeting of Local Guides. I was told by Gohan black dingoes are preferred as they are considered to be the tastiest. The hair of the dog is burnt of and the skin is kept on the meat.


Well…. I tried it. I truly expected it to taste like “dog”… but it didn't. It was gamey, beefy, and almost goaty. The meat was defiantly tough, but I don't know if that’s how dog meat is supposed to be. The cuts were unfamiliar to me, so I wasn't sure which bits I was eating, nor which bits were supposed to be tastier.  I avoided the skin, and truth be told, I also avoided taking second helpings. Like balut, it was a mind over mater thing. If I was served asocena without being told what it was and it was slow cooked in a tasty gravy, I think I’d chomp it down happily. But as it was served, skin on and very visibly “dog”, I found it hard to digest. I tried to copy Gohan in how he was eating his piece, but he obviously had years of experience ahead of him compared to me. I doubt I’ll try it again knowingly. Maybe next time I won’t know and I’ll actually truly enjoy it!

Pinikpikan was next on the menu, or as locals call it: “killing me softly chicken.” I couldn't believe my ears when I was told about this local delicacy. Again, it is something reserved for special occasions only, and we were honored, but also slightly scared to be the special occasion… this is why: Pinikpikan is a chicken which has been beaten with a stick whilst still alive, it is then killed butchered and cooked. It is claimed that beating the chicken whilst alive bruises the skin therefore bringing blood to the surface and thus improving the taste of the chicken. The occasion follows with the chicken being shared out amongst the guests. The youngest girl gets the wing, the youngest boy gets the leg, the oldest man receives the head, and the eldest women… the chicken bum (an actually priced part of the chicken in the Philippines, as the chicken only has one!) We weren’t around when the “killing me softly” part was happening, but I did see the plucked chicken in a thin blue plastic bag, and it was a sight to behold. I felt horrible for having been the reason that an animal had to go through any kind of pain. The killing had been done, and the only thing I could do was eat the poor bugger. I kept telling myself it’s tradition, it’s tradition, it’s tradition and that the foie gras I’ve had in the past is no different. 


As you can see from the image above, the chicken’s skin is quite dark. This darkening isn’t from soya sauce, but from the bruising. I got the wing, as tradition states. I found the meat to be rather tough and chewy, but then again, that’s the preferred texture for most Philippinos. The taste was meatier then regular chicken. It was cooked in a really interesting way: with smoked venison at the bottom of a tall pot; followed by smoked pork belly; then the chicken; a few crushed, but still whole stems of ginger; finally all covered with water and left to simmer on the hob whilst the flavours mixed for a couple of hours. Lastly some Pac Choy, or Chinese cabbage as they call it here, was added on top in the final few minuets of cooking. The broth was served in a bowl, and it had the most fragrant and smoky aroma. It tasted really good. The smoked venison fell apart in my mouth and the pork belly was so soft and salty, I savored every mouthful.

Smoked pork belly, smoked venison, pac choy and ginger flavoured the tasty broth

I can’t say I really enjoyed the asocena nor the pinikpiken. I was however, extremely grateful that Gohan went out of his way to give us the true taste of the Mountain Province. Around the world there are some very different, sometimes bizarre, culinary traditions in practice. For some people it may seem backwards and un-civilised, and for other’s it’s an insight into a culture trying to hold on to tradition. Gohan had taught us so much about the culture of the Mountain Province. It’s a place we found very difficult to leave. The people, the culture, and defiantly the food all took us by supprise. I know I will return as I believe there is still so much to learn from the area. But for now I know two things for sure: I will never look at a dog the same way and that the spirit of bruised chicken will always hunt me….

Sagada, Fresh and Tasty

It’s hard to be disappointed with food in Sagada. You can be sure that the food being served in the local restaurants has been grown/reared locally. This is evident by the sculpted mountains that flow through the Mountain Province, terraces that have been systematically carved from the sides of the mountains. The organic farms ensure the sustainable use of water, and make crop rotation easier for the year.

Our days started with a killer breakfast at Bana’s Café. The full works, as the likelihood of having a proper lunch was slim, especially when caving and hiking. So we splurged a little, and after all, Bana's was the best place in town to get some proper coffee:

Bananas with fresh, homemade thick and deliciously creamy yogurt. It’s hard to find decent yogurt in the Philippines as cows are rarely milked, and the “fresh milk” that is available tends to be imported from New Zealand. The milk used to make Bana’s yogurt comes from the Carabu – the waterbuffalo. In the Philippines, the buffalo is considered the farmer’s best friend, as it ploughs the land, produces vitamin rich dairy produce and is a symbol of strength and agriculture. The meat is leaner then, and contains as much iron, as beef. I was recently told, that Buffalo dairy products are now being seen as a lucrative business. The milk of the buffalo has more nutrients then that of the cow, and buying milk from the buffalo which has been reared domestically, is cheaper then importing long life cow’s milk from Australasia.

Next on the morning menu was either:

Bana’s Longsilog, which was delectable. The sausage had been partly opened so the fatty porky bits on the inside crisped up. They had, possibly the best fried egg I had had since leaving Manila. The yolk was runny and the whites slightly crispy…

…Or it would be one of Bana’s selection of omelettes served with whole grain toast and local marmalade. Lighter then the Longsilog and a little healthy if vegetables were chosen for the filling. The egg was nice an fluffy and the vegetables still retained some integrity, and weren’t soggy. It was a perfect breakfast before a hike, as it wasn't too greasy and filling to impair mobility… unlike the next break fast….

…So the Bana’s Favourite, was probably our favourite breakfast opotion. It consists of whole grain toast, local bacon, two eggs, marmalade and fresh fruit. This was saved for the day of departure, before we hade to make a six hour journey to Baguio. The intension was to eat enough that we would want to fall back asleep on the bus, but this was impossible with the winding roads, and the rickety seats.

After a day's trip, and depending on what time you get back into Sagada Town, a drink or a snack is surely in order to gain back all the lost energy. This can either be in the form of a super strong Red Horse, or equally pleasant: A lemon meringue pie from the Lemon Pie Inn. We stumbled here after a long hike. The Inn was bright yellow, and I remember reading about it in one of my favourite Philippino food/travel blogs (http://lakad-pilipinas.blogspot.com) as a place that was recommended.

We sat ordered their famous Lemon Pie, and whilst we waited we took in the interior. A mix of traditional Sagadan design with an arty twist. Colourful art broke up the traditional wooden interior, with no eclectic ornament seeming out of place. The seating was low, with cushions and low tables, which I can imagine can get a little uncomfortable after a while. I was disappointed not to see any alcohol on the menu, as we were hoping to come back for evening drinks, but we figure, with the early closing time of 8.30pm, the establishment was more of a café then a bar.

We got speaking to the writer of another travel blog Biyaheng Pinoy (http://www.biyahengpinoy.blogspot.com) whilst at the Lemon Pie Inn. He told us he decided to stay on in Sagada and help promote the Lemon Pie as he loved the idea so much. He has been really very successful in all efforts of making the Lemon Pie Inn customer friendly, from decorating the interior, to promoting the Inn on social networking sites, and generally creating a buzz for the tangtastic homemade pies. They are now so famous, one of the main culinary attractions of Sagada.

The story of the Lemon pie goes back a few generations. A recipe was passed down the family and 12 years improvements were made to create what is now the most famous Lemon Pie in the Philippines. The pies were originally take up town to the market where they were sold, but now, as the town develops further downtown, the owner decided to stay put and let people come to him for his delicious treat. The pie has now been enjoyed by many locals and travellers alike, and continues to be bogged about by avid foodie (like myself).    

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Bana’s Café, Sagada, In search of some fine poop!

The town of Sagada nestled in the Mountains of Cordillera

A six-hour drive up one of the world’s most dangerous motorways, and five thousand feet above sea level, lays the stunning town of Sagada, high up in the Mountain Province of Cordillera. Lime stone cliffs, lush thick pine forests, along with what seems like endless rice terraces, surround the town of Sagada. The culture in the area is vastly different from the rest of the Philippines, as majority practice Animism. The belief that everything has a spirit and nature is to be respected is very evident in the organic development of the town. The houses are made of natural material, garbage is disposed of properly, and the youth have picnics in caves. There is very little Spanish or American influence, which means the town still retains a lot of tradition.

Sagada’s lush terrain along with it cool temperature is ideal for growing coffee. This was the reason for our visit: to see how the world’s most expensive coffee, civet or alamid coffee, is produced. Our search led us to Melay and Gohan Sibayen, a couple who have dedicated their lives to sourcing and roasting the best coffee available in the Cordilleras.

Bana's Cafe 

With the support of Bote Central (a member of The World Fair Trade Organisation), the couple were given an 18-day roasting machine so that the sourced coffee can be freshly roasted at the back of their cafe, saving on costs and giving the smaller farmers an even better price. Some of the coffee gets sent to Bote Central and some is kept in their café in Sagada, and sold to passing travellers.

The café opened five years ago, the same time as the birth of their daughter Bana. Since then they have sourced and continue to source organically grown coffee, and Civet coffee from around the Mountain Province. They have encouraged the DTI, the local Department of Trade and Industry to recognise coffee as a lucrative crop, which should be encouraged amongst farmers. Now, Cordillera is recognised world-wide for it’s good quality and wonderfully aromatic Arabica coffee. This is still something that is reasonably new to a lot of Philippinos who are used to instant 3-in-1 pouches, but things are gradually changing, as more coffee shops are popping up. 

The hanging coffins of Sagada

So we wanted in on the buzz. Gohan took us for a scenic stroll through Echo Vally, where, as the name suggest, you can get a good echo reverberating through the Vally. We had some fun here, then headed down to see the hanging coffins, a tradition which is unique to Animist cultures, as it is believed the spirits can be free instead of buried in the ground. What I found so fascinating was how anybody got both the coffin and the body up such steep cliffs, and then even managed to nail it to the rock.

We walked further down the vally. The soil became slimier and the vegetation denser. My grip-less, white canvas trainers were not prepared for the hike, and I could feel every rock and twig underneath my feet. I wondered how Gohan was doing this in flip flops! As we approached an opening of a cave, Gohan pointed in the distance “look, that’s a coffee tree!” I honestly had no clue what I was looking at. Then as we moved further on, I realised a cluster of small trees with bright red berries hanging off them. 

A coffee tree

We were specifically looking for civet poop, and in a dense muddy forest, it’s not easy to find. We were told Civets live around limestone, and after eating the coffee berries, they find a high spot on which to sit and digest their dinner. This is were we would be likely to find their pricey droppings. We searched around for a good while but found only one bean!

Pooped civet coffee bean

We continued up to another farm, where some new Arabica plants were being grown. We stopped to have a rest and chomp on some oranges. 


As we munched away, Gohan explained how the farmer had designed the plotting of the plants to create a bio-diverse farming area. He explained the trees grown around the coffee plants were there to act as green manures, weed control and also as a shade for the little Arabica plants.

Young Arabica coffee plants

So off we set again on the search. We didn’t find any more droppings, but we did find some civet “spit outs” which apparently can be classed as second class to the poop beans.

Spat out civet coffee beans

Happy with our findings, we heading back to the café. Along the way we passed a running stream that led to another cave opening. Gohan told us there are 118 cave opening in the Sagada area, all connected. Some of these caves are accessible, but only with a guide. Others are only for experienced cavers. The intricate network is familiar with the locals as ceremonies are still held deep down in the caves, even to this day.

A cave with a running stream below a Sagadan house

Once back at the café we studied the difference between the civet poop bean, and the spit out bean. The difference was obvious even to the untrained eye. The reason why civet coffee is so revered in taste, is the process of bean selection and digestion done by the civet. Firstly it picks the most ripe bean, then if the whole bean is digested, only the soft flesh of the fruit is broken down, whilst the bean stays intact. The emzynes in the civet are said to enter the bean creating shorter peptides thus creating more amino acids. The taste of the coffee is smoother and chocolatier then regular coffee. As you can see from the picture below, the digested coffee bean has a rougher surface then the spat out coffee bean. As the spat out coffee bean has also been exposed to the enzymes, but for a shorter period of time, it is second class to the digested bean and still reaches a high price.

Left: Pooped bean (rougher exterior)  Right: Spat out bean

So now it was time to try some civet coffee. As expected, it was lovely. It was the first properly brewed coffee I had since leaving Vigan. The taste was not exactly as I expected though. There was a hint of nuttiness, almost hazelnutty. It was defiantly smoother then regular black coffee, but also had a drier after taste. Anyways… I’m no coffee expert, but I did defiantly enjoy it, especially after the long hike and whilst enjoying the beautiful views over Sagada.

A cup of civet coffee and a beautiful view

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Ilocos Norte, Laoag and around

Paoay Church

The food in Laoag is lighter, healthier and fresher then that of Manila. The temperature as you go further north of Luzon gets instantly cooler. The terrain also starts to change, which at the time of travel (early January), at times looked like the South of Italy.  This sets the scene, perfect for growing seasonal vegetables. Pinakbet is a dish seen at nearly every restaurant in Ilocos North. It’s an assortment of local vegetables: bitter gourd, string bean, tomatoes, okra, chilie peppers, winged beans and eggplant, all fried with some onion and garlic. There are a few places in Laoag conjuring up western combinations with pinakbet, like pinakbet pasta, pinakbet curry, and pinakbet pie, but the most interesting and tastiest combination we tried was pinakbet pizza at the Herencia Café opposite the Paoay Church in the town of Paoay.  I thought it would taste a little strange and soggy with so many vegetables on top, but I can safely say it’s the best pizza I’v had in the Philippines so far. The base was thin enough, still crispy, not too cheesy (and not the plasticy stuff either), the vegetables still had a bit to them, and the combination felt healthy and vibrant.

Pinakbet Pizza

As we walked around town, we saw people selling bundles of bamboo with a gold seal around the end. We never really clocked it was food, until we were approached and asked if we wanted to try sticky coconut rice. Sounded delicious, hard to turn down an offer to try free food. The rice had been mixed with grated coconut and placed inside the bamboo. The bamboo is steamed for a while, and vola! sticky coconut rice you have.  A quick yet firm smack on the floor splits the bamboo making it easier to obtain the sticky rice. Care has to be taken though when eating as the edges of the bamboo can be rather sharp. We bought a whole bundle for our trip… little did we realise it was something that had to be eaten within the day, otherwise it dries out and becomes inedible. We ended up chucking half our bundle away, which was a real shame.

Sticky coconut rice in bamboo

A dish which is available pretty much every where in the country, and a dish loved by pretty much every Philippino is sizzling sisig. I eat it regularly when out with friends in Manila. Best served with chips and an ice cold San Miguel. But I never really questioned what went in it. From having tried quite a few sisigs, I got the impression it wasn't just pork mince… I assumed it also had belly fat and maybe even bits of crispy pork skin. A good sisig is fried with onions, chilles, and garlic, then has a raw egg cracked on the top of the sizzling mixture. Some sisigs have been chewy and indigestible, others have been crispy, some have even had more vegetables then meat in it. So I needed to ask the question: “what's in my Sisig?” The answer was not at all what I expected. Apparently sisig is a combination of all the off cuts: head, intestines, liver and ear all chopped up and fried with the remaining ingredients. This got me thinking… I rarely ever see the “other” cuts of pork, like pork chops, pork lion, ham on menus or in supermarkets, it’s always the stranger cuts and either chewy or crispy pork skin. When I questioned what happened to these finer cuts, I was jokingly told: “we chuck ‘em away!”…. “Joke Lang”… “We give ‘em to our dogs!”

Sizzling sisig

So with this knowledge, I seek to find what makes the perfect sisig. What is it that, for Philippinos, makes their best-loved snack super tasty? It will take a lot of research and a lot of tasting and trying of different sisigs. I feel it is something I would be proud of accomplishing during my two months left in the country, to be able to say “I can make a sisig that any Philippino would be proud of!” Check back on my for that one ; )  

Bobby’s House

Whilst in Vigan, we met an interesting chap called Bobby. A Philippino living in northwest London, Bobby returns to his hometown of Bantay, just outside of Vigan, at least once a year to visit friends and family. Bobby was a character, from the moment we met him with his “Death is Certain” t-shirt, his Monster yellow sport bike and his wildly fierce tattoos. We were actually taken aback by his unassuming hospitality. Bobby, like a true Philippino, took us under his wing and gave us a gastronomic tour of the town. After seeing our eagerness to find and try the true Vigan cuisine, we were invited to his house for “light lunch” the following day to try his family’s lutong bahay (home cooked meals) before catching a bus for Laoag.

If you were to ask any Philippino whilst travelling in the country where you’d be able to fine “good” food, their response would be: “my house!” Even with the abundance of restaurants/stalls/grills, most Philippinos patron their wife’s/mothers/grandmothers cooking. Being a guest at a Philippino’s house is like being treated like the Queen. Your cup will never be empty, you plate will never have a bear space on it, and food will be brought out in what seems like endless courses. Philippinos believe in abundance when it comes to food: there should always be more then what can actually be consumed. So if you finish a bowl of noodles is a sign that you enjoyed it so much that you want some more, so expect to have more noodles put in your bowl! 

We were shown around Bobby’s casa: his family’s fields of corn, rice and banana trees, which his parents still farm and sell at the market, even at the age of 78! Their organic garden which had a tilapia pond, mango tress, jackfruit tress, papaya tress, an avocado tree and even coconut trees, showed how fertile the Philippino soil really is. As we chomped on a sour green mango, bobby showed us pictures of his pride and joy: his two sons…. Oh and he showed us his other other pride and joys: his two automatic machine guns he keeps by his bed, “…Because people know I’m a foreigner, so I have to be careful” he said jokingly, but with deadly serious eyes. 

We sat outside to enjoy our meal, along with his friends and family. What was supposed to be one drink quickly turned into… well quite a few drinks. A steady stream of food was brought out: first a whole grilled yellow fin tuna; then chicken noodle soup; followed green papaya pickle; then by banana fritters; fresh coconut; and some more alcohol. We missed our 4’oclock bus, and the next bus after that… and the next bus after that again. Eventually, as the deliriousness from the food and drink set in, we realised we had to get on the next bus, otherwise we would never make it Laoag, and would properly have to face more food! So we said good bye, to Bobby and his lovely family, and got on the last bus of the day, feeling content that we truly experience Vigan lutong bahay.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Ilocos Sur, a Food Adventure

We were told that the province of Ilocos, northwest of the Philippines, serves up some of the best and most bizarre foods to be found in the country. Of course this is debateable if you're a Philippino, but as a foreigner wanting to try all the lovely delicacies of the country, I went where the majority suggested. Our trip started in La Union, where we learnt to surf at the La Union Surf Resort. Highly recommended for the personal instructor… but very disappointing when it came to dinner time. With little else choice, we wondered down the beach and found a cute little café called Lolla Nanny’s. Hidden away, behind the loud obnoxious “surf resorts” with overly bronzed, and bleached blonde surfer types, lies a cute little B&B, with basic accommodation, but lip smackingly tasty food. The menu is a bit eclectic serving anything from curry to sushi to steak and even Vietnamese spring rolls. We ordered a little more then we should have, but after a day off falling of boards, being smacked in the face by unexpected waves and generally being raped by the sea, one feels a little hungry. We ordered the curry, tuna steak and a Vietnamese spring roll with vegetables. Tasty. Probably the most inexpensive and best value for money food establishment there is on La Union’s ever developing beach front.  
Outside Lola Nanny's
Longanisa for breakfast, lunch and dinner

The next day we headed on up to Vigan where time has stood still for nearly two hundred years. The buildings are a unique mix of Chinese, Spanish, and Philippino architecture. It’s a beautiful town with lovely roads steeped in history and wonder. We stayed in an old mansion house, the famous Villa Angela. A beautiful building, although, like a lot of the Philippines, it needed a bit of maintenance and a lick of TLC. 
Vigan Street

This is where we began our hunt for some Vigan Longanisa. Let me quickly explain: Longanisa is like a Philippino chorizo/sausage. They tend to be smaller then the English banger, but they have a strong distinctive flavour depending on where they come from.  Longanisa from Pampanga (near Manila) tends to be sweeter and more of a cylindrical shape, where as longanisa from Vigan tends to be fatter but more garlicky and spicy.  They tend to be served as Longsilog, a popular breakfast dish consisting of Longanisa, garlic rice, a fried egg and some pickled vegetables. As a fan of longanisa, I wanted to try ALL the types available in the town. Every family/restaurant has their own version, and I was intrigued to find out what made a good longanisa.

So the plan was to eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We started of with good intentions, but after a while, as you can imagine, we got a little bored. But here are a few establishments with longanisa we recommend:

Rated #3, Villa Angela, Vigan, for breakfast. Tasty longanisa, garlicy, but rather fatty and chewy. The rice was plain, and the egg over done. The tomatoes on the side were a good accompliment though.  

Rated #2, Uno Grille, Vigan, for dinner. These longanisa were herby and garlicy. Really tasty. The side pickles were even better. Appologies for the picture, we were too egger to tuck in!

Rated #1, Café Leona, Vigan, for Lunch. Garlicy longanisa with a hint to pepper, The rice was really tasty, although the my egg was slightly over done for my liking, but it did have nice crispy whites. So good we forgot to take a picture before we tucked in!

So as the pictures show, the more tasty the longanisa, the worse the picture due uncontrollable gluttony. That’s proof!

One Night in Vigan

So on our last night in Vigan we met up with Bobby (more about Bobby later) for a few drinks. We had some Philippino barbeque which includes: chicken intestine, giblets, quail eggs, and fish balls. Tasty, all deep fried and covered in either a chillie or a hot and sour sauce. This was only the beginning of our night, little did we know what we were in for…

So after a few drinks, we headed over to find the Balut man. Balut for those who don't know is a half developed chicken or duck (in this case duck) which has been steamed for 8 hrs and eaten whilst still warm with a pinch of salt. There are steps to eating balut though...

1.    Crack the top and peel back the shell. Sip the juices.

2.     Peel the egg further down and suck out the chick. This has to be done quick or you get the claw stuck in your tooth.

3.     Once the chick is down, eat the soft yellow yolk.

4.     Eat the whites if you wish, but they tend to be a bit rubbery.

How to eat balut

The key is not to look at the chick, and it’s better to do it at night and after a few drinks for dutch courage. I must say here…. That I did not complete the egg. I actually looked down as I peeled the shell, and what I saw was no thing of beauty. I found the soft chick on my lips and it’s slightly feathery skin to be too much for me to handle. The soup was fine though, tasted like strong chicken soup and the yolk was okay, but a bit chalky for me.

Philippinos love Balut. After 4pm the streets echo with balut sellers calling out to the public wanting what is now more of a street food rather then a delicacy. I have seen barbequed balut embryos, sizzling balut, and even balut with chips, but I know the most popular way to have it is hot, still in the shell and straight from the vendor. I have a theory as to why the balut is so popular among pinoys, and this is open for debate… but in a nation so obsessed with youth and beauty, balut is allegedly supposed to keep you young and youthful, whilst also being an aphrodisiac. Scientifically, it could be true as the egg is high in nutrients, and with a half developed chick inside, the nutrients are more and greater. It kind of reminds me of the Chinese film, Dumpling, where a women "suffering" from mid life crises goes to the extreme by eating human embryos to keep herself youthful…. Anyways. It’s only my theory of why the snack is so popular in a nation where everyone looks ten years younger then they are.

Along with other bizarre fare in Ilocos is one day old chick. This is exactly what it sounds like. It’s one day old chick, plucked, but still with it’s innards, on a stick and fried till golden brown. We were not brave enough to try this… I think it was they way it was described to us: soft, crunchy and chewy. It’s defiantly a mind over matter thing, but the matter came three on a stick, was comical and sad at the same time, and very very beaky! Next time. 

One day old chick

Okay, so now on to the not so gross stuff. After the balut we headed to some stalls where there vendors selling Vigan Empanada. The family run stalls seemed to have a good, and very effective system running, with each family member at each station. Empanadas are made by rolling out a flour dough, very thinly on banana leaf. This works well as a cheap non stick surface. The filling of cabbage, sausage meat and a raw egg goes on and is quickly closed and sealed for deep frying which only takes seconds. The result is a crispy empanada with a tasty filling of peppery meat, crunchy cabbage, and a runny yolk. 

Empanada stall: a family affair with grandmother, mum, daughter and granddaughter

We had this with Okie, a fried batter of onions, cabbage and little shrimp. Okie means crustations/crusty/crunchy… one of them, the meaning got lost in translation. This was all accompanied with vinegar and shallots. Tasty, leaving us with a film of yolky crease around our lips and fingers.

Vigan Empanada and Okie

It was defiantly a good night, both an assault and a pleasure on the taste buds. I do recommend people to go to the stalls by the Plaza in Vigan, as when we were there there didn't seem to be many Tourists, just locals. I think this is when the Lonely Planet can be a God send, but also a Curse. The restaurants mentioned in the book were all packed out with tourists. They restaurants were/are good, but a little over priced. The atmosphere's generic, and the service is to good to be true. The stalls had a buzz; there were families squashed on the benches; the food was chomped, forget about manors; there were genuine toothless smiles on the vendors faces; and a sense of excitement when we saw our empanada being fried in front of our eyes.

Vigan lived up to it’s expectations. Beautiful town, beautiful food… hehe… well kind of ; )  

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Bohol Bee Farm

The view from our room
We decided to book two nights at the Bohol Bee Farm to end our trip around Cebu and Bohol. We arrived for check in, and to our delight, we were told we had been upgraded to one of the newer rooms with a sea view. We weren’t complaining and after a week of cold showers, mossy bites and surprise visits from creepy crawlies in our room, we couldn't have asked for anything better to end our trip with.

I don't know what I was expecting from the Bohol Bee Farm. I was recommended to stay here by a few Philippino friends in Manila. I was told the food was great and the location stunning. I guess I really didn't expect for it to be like that, as we had had bad experiences with previous accommodation that had been described as “nice”, and “homely” on tripadvisor. We anyway, our stay was truly exceptional. I couldn't find any faults with the room, the view was stunning, the location was out of this world, and the concept…. Well, lets just say, I wish every hotel could be like this. 

I read in the Philippines Lonely Planet that the Bee Farm had only started seven years ago, but taking into consideration when the LP was published, it’d be more like 8-10 years. Still what has been accomplished in that time is remarkable. What started out as an organic farm selling produce on site and in the Capital, Tagbilaran, has now turned into one of the most loved hotels in the whole of the Philippines. Surprisingly, for a country that doesn't consider organic to have much weight (as there isn’t much demand for it in local markets), the Bohol Bee Farm is very popular with the Pinoy tourist.  I suppose it’s the natural, organic lifestyle the Bee Farm sells with it’s accommodation, it’s on-site bakery, it’s ice cream hut with traditional Pinoy flavours and the great local, yet healthy food served in the restaurant which is something that is hard to find anywhere else in such stunning surroundings.

Ube (purple yam) and Malungay ice cream in a casava cone

The hotel has great facilities also. It’s ideal, as it’s 20 minuets away from Alona beach where all the “action” is and 20 minuets away from the main town where too much action is.

A day can easily be spent just around the grounds of the Bohol Bee Farm.
I would: wake up, and go for a dip in the sea, early in the morning whilst the tide is low and the sea is calm.

I would then go and enjoy their complimentary breakfasts, which is served by a great view of the endless sea. 

Before the afternoon sun comes out and beats it’s rays, I would go have a lesson in organic farming that can be organised for you at reception.

Then to relax my “sore” muscles, I would walk down to their spa and indulge in a full body massage.

A beer and a dip in their indoor swimming pool is a great place to escape the mid day sun. Maybe read that book you never got around to cause you’ve been so dam busy on your holidays!

 Lunch down by the sunbathing area along with a long cocktail, followed by a mid afternoon dive/snorkel, which can also be organised by the hotel in their very own dive shop, would be a nice relax chance to see the beautiful coral and fish that inhabit the surrounding waters.   

Another cocktail whilst you sit in on of their five hot tubes and watched the sun set. Think about what you’re gonna have for dinner and take in the serine beauty.

I highly recommend staying at the Bee Farm is you are planning on going to Bohol. It offers something I haven’t really seen in other places we stayed, and that’s comfort and calm surroundings at a very reasonable price. Even though the Bee Farm has expanded over the years, it doesn't feel too big. They have 34 rooms that accommodate for all types of travellers. I don't normally stay in “hotel’s”, preferring to stay in smaller B&Bs or Pension Houses. But to me the Bee Farm didn't feel like a “hotel”. I think any more expansion may lose the charm it has now, and unfortunately, I did feel like the tour we had of the farm was a selling tool of making us buy there products from the shop, which was a shame. When something is so organic and so good, it’s almost better to let things run as they are. Even though the tour guide was friendly, she did seem like a sales person rather then a tour guide. I suppose with all great things: bands; brands; restaurants; and even charities, to name a few, have a fine line between success and wanting too much.  I really hope the Bee Farm doesn't cross this, other wise it may lose everything that make it’s so ideal. 

Spanish Sardine Producers, Guiwanon Multi Purpose Cooperative, Bantayan

The Ladies of GMPC

The island of Bantayan, north west of Cebu Island, can only be described as quaint and idealistic. With no big vehicles or many cars on the road, the best way to get around the island is by bicycle, scooter or motorbike. So we rented a scooter and went on a bit of a wonder around the island, with our midway stop being the Guiwanon Multi Purpose Cooperative, or GMPC.

The journey was stunning. The day before, a storm had hit the neighbouring islands of Negros and Mindano, but Bantayan seemed to have been little effected. Our ride past mangroves and up along the coast was our first glimpse at an Island economically sustained by the fishing industry. It was a little surprise that the women we were on our way to meet, were utilising this abundance of fresh fish to produce a product for sale that captures the taste of Bantayan’s best: Spanish style sardines in oil.

Our arrival was greeted with warm smiles and even warmer hugs. We were shown around the GMPC’s community building, built and developed by the Justic Peace and Integrity of Creation- Integrated Development Center, INC (JPIC-IDC), a Christian NGO working in the Cebu region. JPIC helped the women of Guiwanon to develop business skills, they also provided them with training in agricultural sustainability, and helped in bringing the community together with a project aimed at empowering women in rural areas.

The GMPC Community Building

The community building had a shop, offices, a dinning venue, a conference room and a purpose built kitchen that the women could use in their business endeavours. We sat in the kitchen whilst the women finished of sealing and labelling some 93 bottles for shipment, and we realised the simplicity of the operation. There was nothing complicated about the process, it was a few simple steps from having fresh sardines to having preserved sardines that would last on a shop shelf for months to come. It was the training in health and safety and in quality control, which was the most important thing the women had learnt, and to put it into practice for their products to be marketable on a wider scale. 

The Kitchen where the sardines are produced

The women told me they bought their fish from the same fisherman every time, and assured me he practised environmentally friendly fishing methods. Along with the sardines, there are chillies, carrots, bay leaves and peppercorns in the preserve. The women told me all the produce comes from their gardens.

Along with the sardines, the women also produced Kropic. A rice cracker, which is dried to be preserved and then fried just before eating. They women made kropic in four different flavours: carrot, mulugay, squid, and shrimp. The weather needed to be hot and sunny in order to make the kropic as it requires drying in the sun for the whole day. But as unfortunately the rainy seasons were prolonging, the production of kropic had to be put on hold. 

Left to right: Carrot kropic and mulungay kropic

So it was time for, what I consider the best bit… the tasting!!! We got some bread, fried some kropic and opened a jar of sardines and dug in! I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of sardines unless they were deep fried in batter, but these little shiny beauties were delectable. They had a lovely yet very mild flavour. I asked the ladies how they preferred to eat the sardines, and some suggestions were: fried and with noodles, with rice, in a sandwhich and ground up with liver as an accompliment to a meal. One women said here mother in-law liked then in her Lumpia (kind of like a large spring roll).

I really enjoyed meeting the women of GMPC. I personally felt they were living a decent life, where they were empowered to make their own living, help others in the community, and to stand an example of successful rural development. Programmes like this give people a chance, and shows that community improvement and development is they way forward to a better life, not moving to the city as many people see as a way of escaping problems. A lot of farmers and fishermen in the Philippines are moving to the cities to find jobs, due to crop failure, land disputes, visions of riches and even because of climate change problems. My visits to small producers has shown me that there are ways of making a living in rural Philippines with the right help and with more of an integration within village/town communities.  Obviously the right guidance is needed, and people need to see the benefits before part embarking on a project. But as I have seen: with the right support, the hope and the driven determination for a better future, this is the happenings for a better Philippines.

On the way back, we stopped for a swim in the sea to watch the sunset. I can’t even begin to tell you how beautiful Bantayan and how lovely the people are. I really recommend a visit. Enjoy the quite beaches, the local cuisine and the beautiful sunsets. It’s unspoilt and far from the crowds. It’s my heaven on earth : )