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A tour of Bicol, by way of food

/ 12:04 AM August 03, 2014

Under the expanse of a limitless sky and rocking in a speedboat on what seemed like an endless sea, I suddenly realized how insignificant our existence is.

“We are nothing,” I conceded to the wind slapping my face, while taking in the overwhelming beauty of nature around me.  I was grateful to exist anyway.

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But all sense of insignificance was erased as we alighted from the speedboat to have lunch. A waiter in a camisa de chino and rolled up slacks greeted us with a coconut and straw, a welcome drink. A few meters up the beach, a cook grilled tuna and ribs. To his right, a halo-halo stand. And by the water, a long table with china and cutlery. I felt more important than the sky.

Misibis Bay

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This was private dining, the Misibis way. “Would you like chardonnay or a mojito?” a waiter asked as I scooped the orange fat from crabs with my bare hands. “Water lang, thank you,” I replied. The experience was enough to get anyone inebriated.

The menu was simple, actually. Ribs, skewered vegetables, crabs, seared tuna… simple food for a regular cookout. We could’ve been at any decent grillery. But eating on the sand, isolated by water from the rest of humanity, devoid of mobile signal yet with an abundance of Merlot… that was priceless.

“If this is how they roll in Bicol, no wonder Bicolanos are known to be playboys!” I thought. The priceless paradise is located in Bacacay, Albay Province in the Bicol Region, where Mayon Volcano can be found. Aside from lunch in the private cove, you can also have cocktails on a speedboat cruise to catch the sunset by the volcano’s perfect cone.

The boat and champagne, though, do come with a price tag: you must be a guest at the luxury resort (see MisibisBay.com), where room rates range from P25,000 to P50,000 per night. These rates give you access not only to their island paradise but also to their island playground: zipline, ATV tours and luge rides, aside from the sunset cruise with your poison of choice.

A Taste of Mt. Mayon

But the beauty of Bicol is not exclusively for the wealthy. To see the beauty of Mt. Mayon, all you need is a pure heart, even if you have an empty pocket. Legend has it that Mayon is a virgin and Ulap (the clouds) is her protective lover who covers her so that she cannot be seen by those who are not pure of heart.

A gorgeous view of Mt. Mayon can be seen by any pedestrian from the 156-meter high Lingñon Hill or from the ruins of the Cagsawa Church, where natives took refuge in 1814 when Mayon erupted. The church collapsed, killing the evacuees, but the bell tower of the church stands to this day, one of the most famous tourist attractions of Bicol, and Mayon stands proudly behind it.

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Colonial Grill

If it is cloudy and you can’t get a particularly pretty view of the perfect cone, don’t worry. Another way to appreciate Bicol is by going on a food tour.

Colonial Grill (Rizal Avenue, Old Albay District, Legaspi) gives a good overview of what Bicolano cuisine is all about. Bicolano cuisine is distinguished from other Filipino regional cooking because their palate favors spicy flavors. This is probably because even before the Spaniards discovered Bicol in 1565, natives were already engaged in trade with Malaysians and Indonesians for a couple thousand years.

The following local specialties must be on your checklist: laing (taro leaves and chili cooked in coconut milk), pinangat (taro leaves, chili, meat and coconut milk wrapped in gabi leaves and tied securely with coconut leaf), and Colonial Grill’s ice creams.

The ice creams are especially popular because of their unique Bicolano flavors: sili (chili), tutong (burnt rice) and pili nut. The sili flavor is especially interesting. It looks like an ordinary strawberry ice cream and simply tastes creamy at first then after two seconds in your mouth, the spiciness suddenly bites! It’s a really fun ice cream flavor. The pili ice cream is Bicol’s response to vanilla ice cream. But my favorite was the tutong ice cream, for its toasted flavor.

When you order the laing, make sure to tell the food server not to temper the flavors, as they do this to accommodate tongues incapable of Bicol-level heat. But doing so would deprive you of a real laing experience. On my trip, I found the laing at Misibis Bay, cooked by hired locals, much more authentic as it was presented without apologies.

‘Tinutungang Manok’

But the best dish I tasted on the Bicol food tour was also at Colonial. It wasn’t laing but a chicken dish called Tinutungang Manok. Gourmet Beth Romualdez has a recipe for this, calling it Adobong Manok sa Sinunog na Niyog (Braised Chicken in Charred Coconut) in her book “Cooking Lessons,” published by Anvil.

Tutong usually refers to burnt rice often scraped from the bottom of the cooking pan. But it is not really burned, just toasted until the rice is golden brown. For Tinutungang Manok, this method is applied using coconut meat for a toasted coconut flavor.

According to Colonial Grill’s Chef Jeric Llandelar, coconut meat (sapal) is cooked in a cauldron until it is toasted or resembles tutong. Make sure it is not burned black or it will be bitter instead of smokey. Once toasted, water is added to make gata or coconut soup. This becomes Tinutungang Gata. This is added to chicken sauteed in garlic, onions and lemongrass, then served with slices of either green papaya or green saba bananas.

The result is a fabulous smokey chicken coconut stew. I would go to Bicol for this dish alone!

DJC Halo Halo

For another uniquely Bicolano dish, visit DJC Halo-Halo (Landco Business Park, Legazpi City, 052 480 6868) for merienda. This offering is packed with all the goodness of halo-halo that we are familiar with: saba banana (plantain), leche flan, ube, sago, gulaman, corn. But what makes it different is the heaping of cheese on top. It’s no fancy cheese, just regular cheddar cheese, but it makes for a really good halo-halo!

Nibbles

Bicolanos are also known for their toasted siopao, malunggay pandesal and pili nuts.

For toasted siopao, head to 3N Bakery. This is no ordinary siopao; it is unlike the usual Chinese-style pork bun. The texture is like bread, like the Filipino monay. But inside is a savory pork filling. It is best appreciated fresh from the oven!

Malunggay pandesal, whose popularity is such that it is now available around the country, can be found at Emong’s (details in Emong Malunggay Pandesal on Facebook). Meanwhile, before you head home, buy Bicol’s favorite pasalubong:  its famous pili nuts in several varieties, available at Albay Pili Nut, a specialty store that has been around since 1936. Pili nuts are light and sweet , and the store has varieties such as salted pili nuts, caramelized pili nuts, even a pili nut polvoron.

Five Views

My only regret on this trip was not being able to have authentic tuba or coconut wine from coconut sap. We had sauvignon blanc while trying very hard to get a glimpse of Mt. Mayon, which was hidden by Ulap during the tail end of typhoon Florita, on Five Views, a hill open to the public where you can picnic with a view of Mt. Mayon, Mt. Isarog, Mt. Masaraga, Mt. Malinao and Mt. Iriga.

I am sure that if we were pure in spirit from the tuba, instead of sauvignon, Ulap might have taken that as our being pure of heart and allowed us a glimpse of Mayon even for just a moment!

I never saw Mt. Mayon in her full glory. I left with the realization that even the wealthiest can be deprived of nature’s grandeur should it choose to show itself only to a privileged few. I will have to come back for another shot at seeing that perfect cone… and lots of shots of tuba! •

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