When you set foot in Raquel Choa’s home, you enter the chocolate kingdom where the spirit of Maria Cacao is very much alive.
According to Philippine mythology, Maria Cacao is a diwata whose palace is in a cave in Lantoy, Argao, Cebu. The area surrounding it is said to be her cacao plantation.
When floods occur and when bridges break is when, as folklore would have it, Maria Cacao and her husband Mangao would board their golden ship, traversing the river to sell their crops.
Raquel, the Philippine chocolate queen, I believe, is the reincarnation of Maria Cacao.
Should you be fortunate enough to be invited and entertained by Raquel, a visit to her kingdom would mean being welcomed by chocolate master Edu Pantino, who leads the way around her enchanting home.
Legend of Maria Cacao
The experience starts with fresh cacao fruit picking, tasting and then a retelling of the history of chocolate in the Philippines that dates back to the Spanish galleons.
A few steps in, and Hannah welcomes you. She is Raquel’s fifth child, and known as the Chocolate Princess. She is the “spiller of the beans,” tasked to educate on the health benefits of cacao.
Stroll down further and you will spot JP, Raquel’s son, with his easel, painting, with cocoa as his medium.
As you reach the dining area, Angelie, another daughter, entertains you. She sits you down at a beautifully set table, where an unforgettable multisensorial chocolate experience with the Chocolate Queen herself is about to take place.
Raquel’s story was not a fairy tale.
The legend of Maria Cacao was told to Raquel time and again by her grandmother, Leonila “Nila” Canoog-Borgonia. It was Nanay Nila who made Raquel drink a cup of sikwate every day to give her the energy boost she needed for that long walk to school.
Raquel made her first perfect cup of sikwate at age 7.
Life unfolds differently for each one of us. Raquel lived in the city till she was 7. Then she moved to Balambam, where she was cared for by her grandmother.
She moved to Manila at age 12 or 13. While in the big city, she took on many jobs—garbage collector, laundrywoman and even flower and candle vendor. She returned to Cebu and worked as a factory worker, toiled in a carinderia, delved in fashion design and even became a wedding planner.
She married at 16, had her first child at 17. She is a mother of eight, and now a widow.
Raquel’s obsession with chocolate began more as a challenge. Her friend from Argentina would proudly boast of all of their homegrown products, from wine to olive oil, saying, “I can bring my country with me, everywhere I go.”
That statement made by her friend ignited something in her. Choa thought long and hard of a product that would truly represent Cebu and the Philippines. It had to be something unique. While Cebu has its iconic lechon, one could certainly not travel the world with it!
This was when she remembered tablea, pure chocolate in tablet form, that her lola turned into sikwate in the mornings.
Raquel’s journey molded her into what she is today, the so-called Philippine Chocolate Queen. And she indeed has the persona for it. She lives and breathes her title, ever burning with passion for cacao and for her craft.
She is also the Philippine chocolate sommelier. Though never schooled in chocolate, she self-studied cocoa from fruit to seed, to the actual making of tablea.
Indeed life is beautiful, for from her struggles she has risen to bring pride to the Philippines by representing us all over the world. At the Le Salon du Chocolat at the United Nations in New York, she put on a performance, pounding cacao, making and molding tablea, then presenting it as pure Philippine chocolate before the eyes of the delegates. You must experience her in action—it is theatrical, she’s almost in a trance.
Raquel is the founder of Cacao de Filipinas Fellowship, which aims to uplift and empower local farmers by educating them to produce quality cacao and contribute to economic growth.
It is the energy that Raquel possesses, and the excitement derived from her passion for cacao, that fuels both local and international interest in quality, handmade Philippine chocolate.
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