By Zsarlene B. Chua, Reporter
Aside from the beautiful views — the breathtaking Mayon volcano and the rolling “Pili Nut” hills are just two of many — the Bicol region has a lot going for it, especially in the culinary department. The region’s people have a masterful way of cooking with their staple ingredients: chilies and coconut milk.
A three-day trip meant to highlight the beauty and heritage of the region — because May is Heritage Month — became an eat-your-way-through-Bicol journey (we weren’t complaining).
The chilies which grow abundantly in the region (especially the bird’s eye chili or siling labuyo) crossed the Pacific Ocean from Mexico thanks to the Galleon Trade (1565-1815) and were heartily adopted by the Bicolanos. During the two-and-a-half centuries that the galleon’s plied the route between Mexico and the Philippines, Bicol was home to astilleros or shipyards thanks to it abundance of timber. Abaca, also found in abundance, was prized for its strong fibers used in the ships’ rigging.
LUNCH ON THE OCEAN
As soon as we arrived at Legaspi’s airport that first day, we were shuttled off to Pilar Port in Sorsogon, about an hour away, then packed into a boat for another half an hour. Our destination was Panumbagan Sandbar where we found a large bamboo raft or balsa anchored.
(The story goes that Panumbagan Sandbar got its name when a big — and dead — crocodile was found there, with evidence of it having been battered [umbag] by the locals.)
The sandbar, which has a view of both Sorsogon’s Bulusan volcano — an active volcano whose most recent eruption was in June 2015 — and Albay’s Mayon, only appears during low tide and sinks into the Philippine sea during high tide.
It was on this balsa in the middle of the ocean that we had our first taste of authentic Bicolano cuisine. The featured dishes that lunch were kinuko (manta ray cooked in coconut milk and malunggay or moringga), kaluko (taro stuffed with grated coconut and simmered in coconut milk and brown sugar), and eat-all-you-can fresh sea urchin pulled up from the seafloor under the balsa.
All the seafood we ate was bounty from the surrounding sea, prepared by the fisher folk who met us there, said Clang Garcia, our guide and managing director of Jeepney Tours, a local tour operator.
The kinuko was an instant hit as it was like a seafood version of the better known pinangat — steamed fresh taro leaves with coconut milk and meat — but with a more umami flavor. The manta ray meat was flaked so it was easy to see how laborious the process of making this dish was.
The kaluko, our dessert, was also very good. The hollowed-out taro root was filled with grated coconut meat which provided a different texture, and it was really easy to get hooked on this dish — if not for it being really heavy on the stomach.
The balsa was set up to boost the locals’ earnings while giving tourists a different lunch experience during tours such as the one we were on, said Ms. Garcia. There were more balsas but thanks to the fact that the Bicol Region lies on the trajectory of many of the typhoons that hit the country, several were destroyed.
That night, we went on a firefly dinner cruise, a few minutes away from where we were billeted. While we were served more delicious food on the boat, the highlight undoubtedly was when the nearby trees started twinkling, covered as they were with thousands of fireflies.
Our cruise guide told us the story of how the fireflies — called tonton balagon in the region — came to be. According to the legend, three children would hang a lantern on a nearby tree to guide their parents home each night, but after one particularly bad typhoon, the parents did not come home. The children continued to hang their lantern on the tree in the hope that their parents would return, until years passed by and they themselves passed on, at which point the fairy who lived with them turned the children into fireflies.
Another local belief is that fireflies only appear on trees where fairies or diwata dwell as these supernatural creatures take care of these little insects. Therefore any tree with fireflies on it is said to be enchanted.
A HERITAGE HOME AND LONGGANISA
For lunch the following day, we were brought to a 1913 heritage house in Daraga, Albay which has been converted into a restaurant called Balai Cena Una.
According to Angel Reyes — the restaurant’s chef and daughter of the house — people would come to the house to see the works of her father, Sheldon A. Villanueva, a furniture designer best known for his work in abaca. As they so often had to feed these visitors, the decision was eventually made to turn the house into a restaurant.
Today, the family’s abaca products showroom, ShelMed, is a block away from the restaurant, displaying everything from rugs to organizers to lamps. Ms. Reyes’ father has lately taken an interest in wood carving and some of his new pieces are also showcased there.
The lunch at Balai Cena Una focused on the local but with a gourmet touch — we were served prawns in tilmok sauce. Tilmok is basically pinangat but this time made using crab meat. Alongside the prawns was a pasta covered in tinutong sauce. Tinutong is charred coconut milk which lent a smoky, umami flavor to the dishes. Tinutong made another appearance when we were served tinutong na manok (chicken with charred coconut milk sauce).
The restaurant sources its ingredients from four farms in the area, said Ms. Reyes, and they “serve whatever we get from them.”
The next stop was a demonstration on the making of Guinobatan longganisa (sausage) — which we then had for a snack. The demo was held at D’Hacienda, a 15-hectare resort in Guinobatan, Albay.
Dr. Dandy Gata — whose family owns the nearby Gata General Hospital — inherited the property from her parents and upon discovering that it had a natural spring, she decided to turn it into a spring and nature resort whose focus is three pools. The resort is also filled with 10,000 cacao trees, 2,000 pili tress, and 5,000 coconut trees, most of which were planted by Dr. Gata who is an avid gardener. The resort, which opened two years ago, is popular with the locals with many spending the day swimming in the pools or setting up camp.
Unlike most longganisa which use ground meat, Guinobatan’s makes use of finely chopped meat to preserve the natural juices. But just like other variations, notably the Vigan variety, this longganisa makes use of a lot of garlic with the bite softened by brown sugar.
Guinobatan’s longganisa is diminutive in size: each sausage is about an inch long, but that inch is packed with flavor. The makers of these little things proudly say that they do not use preservatives. The sausages were a hit with the members of the tour group — a kilo of the stuff was dispatched in less than an hour.
MAYON SHOWS HER BEAUTY
Soon we were shuttled off to yet another floating meal, this time on a raft in the middle of a lake at the foot of a volcano.
Getting to Sumlang Lake isn’t easy as the roads are narrow and rough, but the trip is so worth it — the lake, has a beautiful view of Mayon Volcano. Many locals rent out canopied rafts on which one can lounge on wicker chairs and dine on tables in the middle of the lake. Ms. Garcia said the furniture came from the local government in a bid to boost tourism in the municipality. It seems to have worked as we saw more than five groups lining up to ride the rafts while we were there. Other visitors opted to kayak around the lake.
Sumlang Lake is located in Camalig, Albay, a municipality with the reputation of having the best pinangat in the region. It should be noted that pinangat uses fresh taro leaves while the other variation of the dish, laing, uses dried leaves. Both are very delicious though.
Ms. Garcia said that the taro leaves used in Camalig’s dish are sourced from the foot of the volcano and that makes all the difference — they claim that leaves taken from anywhere else do not taste as good.
“All the people who know how to make pinangat come from Camalig,” she declared.
During the demonstration, we got a good idea of how laborious it is to make the dish. The cooks use a complicated method of tying all the ingredients into packets so that these don’t explode as they are steamed in clay pots for up to two hours. It is an art form.
The last meal of the trip was dinner at Ysabelles, a Legaspi restaurant where we had a Camarines Sur variation of dinuguan (pork blood stew). Made using tinutong, the addition of the charred coconut milk made the dish more delicious said those who tried it.
Unlike in other parts of the country where dinuguan is paired with puto (steamed rice cake), this variety comes with a noodle dish, pansit bato, named after the municipality of Bato in Camarines Sur. This dish closely resembles pancit canton (the instant variety) in all but taste.
The diners described the combination as “strange yet delicious” while they were slurping away, cementing the belief that Bicol is a destination that will fill up your stomachs as well as your eyes.