Love, devotion and sacrifice are needed in making San Nicolas cookies, so explained Lilian Borromeo, the culinary maven popularly known as the Mother of Pampangueno Cuisine.
Inquirer Lifestyle had been invited to a day-long food safari of Pampanga courtesy of Tour Flair, a bespoke tour operator managed by sisters Teresa “Dinty” Barredo-Keating and Mindy Barredo Perez-Rubio (siblings of Repertory Philippines’ artistic director Carmen “Baby” Barredo) with their childhood friend Lory Vi Valdes.
The main draw of the tour is, of course, the food, but it also has digestible amounts of history. An appealing option for a quick weekday getaway.
First stop was Borromeo’s open-air kitchen in Mexico, Pampanga, where the contingent was greeted with cold pandan juice and steaming tsokolate, freshly prepared in a copper pitcher complete with batirol (a wooden frother for the chocolate; known as batidor or molinillo in other parts of the country).
Breakfast was served while Borromeo, author of “Atching Lillian’s Heirloom Recipes,” demonstrated how to make San Nicolas cookies and tibok-tibok, the panna cotta-like dessert made from carabao milk and cornstarch.
Borromeo interspersed anecdotes of how the cookies came to be (a story we’ll withhold here along with other selected tidbits from the tour to avoid spoilers) and the temporal context of creating the treats.
“You had to wait for the pig to grow up and grow big before you could slaughter it for its lard,” she pointed out. And from this introduction, she proceeded to detail how long and difficult each ingredient would take to become available, providing the tour guests with a deeper appreciation for the cookie’s provenance, given how easy and quick it is to prepare these days with modern ingredients and implements. “They would only have these cookies maybe once a year!”
The women who prepared the cookies in the Spanish colonial-era would sing songs to pass the time as they prepared the dough for their families and friends. They would recite prayers to time the cooking. They would insert their bare hands into the oven to check for the ideal temperature. Love, devotion and sacrifice.
But no matter the ready availability of store-bought butter or margarine (versus the original recipe’s home-produced lard) and digitally-controlled ovens these days, Borromeo still uses hand-carved wooden molds to shape out the cookies. Some of the molds in her collection date all the way back to the 17th century!
To wrap up, she demonstrated how easy it is to make tibok-tibok, advising her audience to pay close attention to the sound that the mixture makes as it cooks. Ti-bok! Ti-bok! Just like heart beats.
Sunken churches, sit-down lunches
After a trip to the sunken San Guillermo Church in Bacolor, whose original 12-meter height had been cut in half with lahar (volcanic mudflow) from the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo and is now entered through its former second floor windows that have been converted into doors, the group arrived at Bale Betis (Betis House), an al fresco extension of furniture-maven Myrna Bituin’s home.
Barquillos (wafer rolls) were being prepared on-the-spot for guests to munch on. There were encouraging invitations for guests to try out the process of ladling the batter onto the metal press and rolling up the hardening wafer around a wooden stick before it crossed the line from malleability to crispness.
As we settled in, Sau Del Rosario, Tour Flair’s celebrity chef, demonstrated how to cook tamales. Del Rosario, French-trained and executive chef of several restaurants, explained the dish’s origins from Mexico and how it was indigenized with local ingredients, such as how rice flour replaced cornmeal. His twist was to add dark orange acheute (annatto) oil for color and an additional layer of flavor.
Fortunately for the group, the Bituin matriarch was home that day and joined us for lunch, regaling us with family stories and her advocacies for sustainable furniture-making and ecofriendly living.
The menu for each tour changes depending on the freshest ingredients that Del Rosario finds on the day, but is always meant to be his own personal stamp on Pampangueno cuisine. On our trip, the six-course sit-down lunch began with a salad of pako ferns, geranium petals, watermelon balls and salted egg with coconut vinegar dressing.
This was followed by burong isda (crispy catfish with fermented rice on a mustard leaf), rolled up like an instant spring roll and slipped into the mouth in one motion for savoring. Other dishes included rellenong bangus (milkfish with special stuffing), morcon (beef roll), and a fun chicken tinola (ginger chicken soup) served in hollowed out coconuts with the fruit’s white meat combined into the soup.
The group was offered a leisurely tour around the Betis Crafts furniture showroom and factory to help ease the tumescence of our tummies. “Good! I need to create space for dessert,” said someone from the group.
Bituin’s children are all in furniture-related businesses, creating a complementary network to reinforce and propagate locally-produced pieces. It’s an interesting afternoon showcase of Filipino design and craftsmanship to both local and foreign tour guests.
For dessert, colorful sapin-sapin (a sweet layered dessert made from rice flour) and halo-halo (beans and candied preserves with crushed ice) hit the spot. And, oh yes, the freshly made barquillos made its grand (re)appearance perched on top of the halo-halo.
The tour would have included a trip to another site post-lunch. Tour Flair usually asks for a vote at this juncture and the guests, feeling content and spent from being so full from a day’s worth of gustatory encounters, unanimously declined. Off we went straight back to Manila.
In 2013, Tour Flair will have Food Safaris in Tagaytay, Davao, Bacolod, and Quezon (for the Pahiyas Festival), as well as Manila-based Food Safaris in Binondo (Manila’s Chinatown) and to a Spanish-ancestral mansion near Malacañang. Tour Flair has regular tours to Baguio and Banaue Rice Terraces; Amanpulo; Batanes; El Nido, Palawan; Boracay; and Bataan.
Contact +632-736-3883 or +63917-530-6090 (Philippines), +1-650-366-4869 (USA) and +1-300-104-174 (Australia) or email [email protected] Visit tourflair.com.