To entrepreneur and gentleman-farmer Ernest Escaler, urban life has become too noisy. Progress and technology could at times be counterproductive.
Escaler heeded a call that drew one back to simplicity, the core of which is the healing power of silence.
Following the growing successes of his corporation, Escaler & Company Inc., and its subsidiary, Gourmet Farms, a pioneer in commercial organic farming, he developed The Sanctuary inside the Gourmet Farms estate in Silang, Cavite. The place pays homage to St. Joseph the Carpenter, who is remembered in the Bible for his silent yet intense piety.
“The whole place is for prayer and for letting go. Hopefully you can encounter God,” said Escaler. “It is hard to listen to God in the hustle and bustle of the city, particularly in this digital age where silence is no longer available. How can you hear God speaking unless you are free from distraction? What better way to experience God than to be with nature?”
The Sanctuary has been landscaped with a lot of mahogany trees, Douglas firs, narra and fruit-bearing ones. Giant bird’s nest ferns sprout from tree trunks. Ducks wade in a pond, framed with impatiens, rain lilies and San Franciscos. In summer, the garden is abloom with dancing ladies, jade flowers, forget-me-nots, hibiscuses, and yellow bells cascading from the trellises.
Over the stony walkway towards the chapel, a pair of gnarled trees forms a low canopy, allowing the individual to bow down when passing under it as a reminder of humility.
The octagonal outline of the chapel was inspired by the Church of the Beatitudes in Israel—built on the historical site where Christ delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Clay water jars outline the boundary of the chapel, symbolizing spiritual refreshment.
The crux of The Sanctuary experience is “Solitudo,” a three-day retreat that combines spiritual and physical detoxification. Solitudo is the Latin word for “being alone” and for a “secluded place.”
Nourishing the body
“The whole experience in The Sanctuary is to be in union with God, to have a relationship with Him. To do this, let us empty our minds of all that is unnecessary. Meanwhile, why don’t we take care of our vessel, our body?” explained Escaler.
Retreatants are welcomed with Gourmet Farm’s signature Basil Lemonade. At the onset, Dr. Jason Peñaranda, director for wellness, asks about health conditions and takes the vital signs and weight of the individual. He noted that women usually skip the scale.
The Sanctuary has 10 villas, furnished with a table and an oak chair with a kneeler from Rome. One can lounge in the private garden, soothed by the gushing waters from the stone fountain, adorned with bromeliads.
The intriguing part of the villa is the large bathroom, designed for the detox.
During the first 24 hours, the retreatants eat simple but wholesome meals prepared in chef Enrico Molera’s kitchen such as roast chicken, pesto pasta, tilapia and mung bean stew with smoked fish and fresh fruit.
There are vegan choices such as crunchy vegetable curry with brown rice; spinach paneer with ashitaba leaves and vegetable chips; or tofu steak with mango salsa sauce on a bed of crunchy vegetable couscous.
The light and silky panna cotta, spiked with bittersweet coffee sauce, is the only indulgence. The snacks are substantial such as a salad with mixed fruit and pan bagnat, a farmer’s sandwich made of focaccia with a ratatouille filling.
“When people hear about detox, they think it’s tasteless food. We give you enough. You drink a solution to help you purge,” said the wellness doctor.
All the meals come with tarragon tea and Solitudo’s trademark drink, gazpacho, a high-fiber concoction of organic greens, carrots and chillies with a dash of pepper.
“This is what differentiates our detox. I created it to hasten the body’s consumption of fiber in a short time to aid in the cleansing. It is made with fresh produce from the farm and blended for easy consumption,” said Escaler.
After lunch on the second day, the retreatant doesn’t take anything, including liquids, until 5:30 pm. For three consecutive hours, one is given a cup of water with Epsom salt and a chaser of alkaline. The final cup is lemon juice with olive oil.
Purging the toxins
The rest of the evening is spent flushing out toxins. All throughout the silent retreat, Dr. Peñaranda keeps his presence unobtrusive, unless the retreatant seeks help. The final cup of water with Epsom salt is taken at 6 a.m. to remove residual wastes.
The physical detox works on the premise of cleansing the liver, the largest vital organ. However, it gets clogged with toxins due to unhealthy eating habits. To do its job of absorbing nutrients and boosting metabolism, it needs to be cleansed.
Dr. Peñaranda explained that the schedule of the physical detox follows the body’s natural rhythm of cleansing itself late at night. The Epsom salt solution serves as a laxative to purge the toxins. The lemon juice helps to release the bile, a substance that filters out the toxins.
At the end of the program, retreatants claimed to feel lighter, and lose between two and seven pounds.
Although there are many websites on do-it-yourself liver detox, Dr. Peñaranda said it’s best to be guided by a doctor.
“As you discard your bodily toxins, hopefully the spiritual toxins go along with it,” said Escaler.
A Catholic retreat starts with confession, while others are conducted with a facilitator who helps put things in perspective.
The silence part can be daunting to people addicted to technology, and to those who fear facing themselves when out of their emotional and mental comfort zones. In the atmosphere of The Sanctuary, silence becomes a salve for the soul.
Escaler shared stories of individuals who experienced catharsis or had a light bulb moment. “This is what makes Solitudo unique. There’s no talking. We host a maximum of eight, and they eat in silence in separate tables. The whole idea is to experience silence so you can hear God talking to you. Give Him a chance,” he said.
“The Sanctuary is my payback place. I am asked if this makes money. This is my ‘thank you’ for all the graces I’ve received.”
Local ingredients, international cuisine
Ernest Escaler had a vision: “I wanted to create in Gourmet Farms local ingredients for international cuisine. We don’t have to keep importing.”
He’s a pioneer in many ways. In the early 1980s, his company ECI Trading was the country’s largest dealer for coffee. When he established Gourmet Farms in Cavite, he built the first coffee-roasting facility and cultivated one of the first organic farms.
Gourmet Farms introduced the country’s first branded gourmet coffee, followed by the farm-to-table concept and the country’s first salad bar. Taking lessons from Marcella Hazan, the famous Italian cookery writer, Escaler launched puttanesca and pesto sauces and other dressings and dips. Eventually he introduced fresh herbs as an alternative to the bottled dried herbs.
To continue his father’s advocacy for traditional folk medicine, Escaler created a line of local herbal teas.
Gourmet Farms has also developed its own line of fresh juices, alkaline water, pure honey, sundried tomatoes, breads, moringa and rosemary cookies. Popular pasalubong items are banana chips, dried squid, tamarind, chips and pastilles balls. It likewise produces body wash and moisturizing shampoo.
The Dining Room offers Mediterranean-inspired cuisine such as beef kebabs, pizzas, squid ink pasta, fattoush salad and moussaka.