“Breakfast in the middle of the rice field, then Lechon for lunch, and end the day with a plate of sisig and a stick of chicken tail. “ And that’s how Poch Jorolan described what the Pampanga Culinary Heritage Tour would be like. I was hooked. And I booked it. Who could pass up a culinary tour in the province known as the “culinary capital of the Philippines”?
The province of Pampanga, located in the Central Luzon region, is approximately 65 kilometers from Manila, a 2 to 3 hour drive northwards. It is bounded by the provinces of Bataan, Zambales, Bulacan and Tarlac, my home turf growing up.
“Pampanga was established along the banks (“pampang”) of a great river, that was to shape its history, the Rio Grande de la Pampanga.” Its inhabitants are known as Kapampangans (also spelled “Capampangan” ), and so is their dialect.
If you only have time for ONE out-of-town guided tour when you visit the Philippines, make it a Pampanga Culinary Heritage Tour. This is probably one of the best representatives of what the Philippines is all about. Food, historical sites, family heritage, and charming, friendly folks who warmly open their homes to you.
Sans Rival for breakfast? Or perhaps a platter of “turrones de casoy” ? So you’re breaking all the rules here, but when was the last time you had something this sinful for breakfast? Well, then it’s time to live a little.
Poch Jorolan, tour operator of Pampanga Culinary Heritage Tours met us promptly for breakfast. First stop was the famous Ocampo Lansang Delicacies, well known for their nougat-like delicacy “turrones de casoy” in the town of Santa Rita.
Our hosts brought out a large “Sans Rival”. This is a cake torte made of several layers of crisp meringue and finely chopped cashew nuts . Once out of the old-fashioned ovens , the thin, crisp meringue layers are slathered with rich buttercream, and topped with a golden butter icing that probably all the angels in heaven created. It was absolutely amazing!
I have baked Sans Rival before, but this one literally “takes the cake” in excellence. What was even more exquisite about this cake torte was that inspite of the warm, tropical weather the butter icing remained rigid and stayed in shape.
These were honey-like chopped cashew nuts, cooked peanut brittle style, shaped in long, slim sticks, then wrapped in a thin, paper-like wafer. The sweet cashew in honey contrasted well with the simple, sheer wafer.
“Turrones de casoy” are an age-old delicacy in Pampanga, that was Spanish-inspired. A Catholic nun from the Domenican order taught founder Felisa Lansang the original recipe for making this Spain-inspired sweet delicacy.
“We have never changed the recipe, nor the ingredients. We never do shortcuts . We never compromise quality. And we stick to using real butter,” proudly declared Mr. Ramon Ocampo, of the family Ocampo-Lansang that owns this “turrones de casoy” business, which has been around since 1920.
The home business has a store-front which sells all sorts of Pampango delicacies: caramel boat tarts, uraro cookies, turrones de casoy and Sans Rival cakes in different sizes. They are open daily, during business hours. Order ahead though, especially during the holidays. I bought a ton of sweet treats to bring back home to my family.
Soon after that dessert-breakfast, off we drove to the next delicious stopover on the itinerary. Ever seen “burquillos” (say ‘bur-kill- yos’ ) being made right before your eyes? I used to enjoy eating these crisp, buttery cylindrical cookie treats as a child. It was so much part of our hometown culture that I never bothered to ask how it was made.
And here before me was the “barquillera” (woman who makes the “burquillos”) herself. Aling May Mercado (“Aling” is a respectful way to address elder women in Filipino culture) of the home business “Santa Rita Burquillos”, was busy churning out her buttery treats right in front of me. Aling May said she makes 1,000 pieces a day, 7 days a week. The craft was taught by her grandmother and she has been at it for the past 20 years, starting as early as 4 AM in the morning everyday.
Aling May stirred a rich, thick, golden yellow batter made of eggs, butter and flour. Then poured a cup or so into the “barquillero” , a heated flat contraption that looks like an ancient sandwich-maker. She quickly took out the flat-crepe and rolled it up in a long sphere-like stick. Gosh, the whole place smelled of delicious butter, it was like a dream!
Soon the best part began. The burquillos started to get crisp. Once they were hard and crunchy, it was ready. Aling May dropped the long, thin, wafer-like burquillos into a tub, beside the other newly made ones. And moved on to making the next burquillos. And the next. And the next. Till she had a large big batch of burquillos inside the square plastic tub.
She offered us some. I took one. It was still warm . I took a bite, and I was smitten. I was in burquillos heaven. It was pure butter! I had no shame. I took a second. And a third. And as we were running out the gate to move on to the next destination, I grabbed a few more buttery treats for the trip in the car.
Our next stop was unexpected. We drove through narrow streets, more twists and turns. And then, out of nowhere there appeared this vast gorgeous house right smack in the middle of a rice field. The beautiful home was a paradise in the middle of farm.
We were at “ Bale nang Juan” (Capampangan for Juan’s house). This is a private farm that is opened up to select friends of the owner’s family and to artists’ groups. Private arrangements can be made for parties of 20 or a little more and they can serve brunch or picnic fare.
Bale nang Juan was quite a site. The house is large, well-ventilated. There was a semblance of antiquity around. Beautiful wooden furniture pieces, a combination of Asian –Filipino influences and some Spanish-inspired touches were everywhere. Large paintings and artworks in various mediums, by several noted artists adorned all the walls. It was refreshing to behold The vast outdoor lawn connects to a rice field. Our tour guide, Poch, mentioned that on occasion, he has participated in a “planting rice” tradition during some events here.
We lingered awhile here at Bale nang Juan’s. It was so restful, so calming to be here. The beauty of the furnishings, the farm house and the lush greens did a lot to inspire me. I regretted not having a sketch pad in my hands, so that I could draw and paint. The abundance of nature all around made me wish we could stay longer. But our bellies were grumbling, so we moved on.
Lunch was at the famous “Everybody’s Café” in San Fernando, the capital of Pampanga. Everybody who has traveled through Luzon knows “Everybody Café”. They serve famous Pampango specialties like their marvelous morcon, a meat roll simmered in a rich, flavorful broth, which I tried to recreate in my own kitchen soon after my trip to the Philippines.
One of their best specialties is “Lechon Porno” (no it’s not what you think). The latter word is derived from a combination of the words ‘pork’ and ‘al horno’ (Spanish for baked), both to describe the crisp, roast pork belly slab oven- roasted ‘lechon’ (roasted pig), a delightful fiesta fare.
Pampanga dishes are some of the best in the world. This is a glimpse of what we enjoyed at Everybody’s Cafe : morcon, fresh lumpia, pako (ferns) salad with salted egg, fresh ‘hito’ (catfish) with ‘buro’ (fish in fermented rice), and fresh ripe mangoes. These are representative of what delicious Filipino food is like.
Flavors and textures in just one meal are a combination of everything sensational: salty, sweet, tangy,spicy, crisp,crunchy, soft, smooth, tender and moist . All these is downed with the wonderful beverages and juices made from tropical fruits in season.
And always, every dish, every drink, every event is accompanied by the charm and gracious hospitality that “Capampangans’ (natives of Pampanga) are known for. They never let you leave their homes with an empty stomach. They fill your bellies and hearts with good food and true friendship.
We enjoyed the Capampangan food I remember from stopovers at this restaurant growing up. We used to travel to Manila on weekends from our Tarlac home. The stop at “Everybody’s…” was a treat I looked forward to each time, as a child. Poch Jorolan and his charming mom, Pette joined us for lunch and regaled us with stories of how the restaurant was started by his grandparents in 1949 and flourishes to this day, with a branch in Angeles City and special dishes sold on weekends at the Salcedo Market, Makati, Manila.
Our last stop was in the town of Mexico, Pampanga, at the home of Atching Lillian Borromeo, cookbook author of the newly-published ” Atching Lillian’s Heirloom Recipes” . Atching means ‘older sister’ in Capampangan. And true to form, a visit to Atching Lillian’s is like a visit to a dear sister. She was warm and welcoming.
Following Filipino tradition, she served us with a tray of delightful goodies. Freshly-baked buttery “Tinapay San Nicolas” which has the consistency of buttery shortbread, but with a richer, butter flavor. She brought out a ton of antique, wooden cookie molds which she used to bake these unique butter delights.
There were “Gorgonias”,too, sweet pastry shaped like little round flutes, and rolled in sugar.
And who could resist the ‘dulce de prenda’ little pastry tarts with grated ‘kundol’ that’s cooked to a sweet paste filling. We downed it all with the most delicious iced tea mix I have ever had. Life was good, I sighed, as I felt the cool breeze of my surroundings at that lovely Borromeo home.
I looked around and I felt like I had stepped back in time. Atching Lillian’s restaurant in her home, was part of a cooking area that was peppered with antique heirloom kitchen gadgets and utensils. Everything was beautiful in its simplicity. There was a distinct charm to the old-fashioned spoons, ladles, jars, skillets, urns, bowls. Her cooking area reminded me of days when life was less complicated and unpretentious.
Atching Lillian graciously signed the cookbooks I bought and wrote the kindest dedications for my sister and me. I bought an antique San Nicolas cookie mold from her. She told me such interesting stories about the origins of this Pampanga pastry. And through her stories, she kindly and generously gave me a mini COOKING LESSON, and demonstrated how to make those gorgeous “Gorgonias”.
And as a bonus, she gifted me with one more cookie mold and another free item : a wooden cooking spoon. What a lovely, kind spirit she was. I couldn’t help but hug Atching Lillian back to thank her for being so sweet. Her cookbook took 7 years to create and like all good things, it is a priceless heirloom. The cookbook contains heritage recipes unique to Pampanga cuisine.
There is a saying that “you can never go back home”. That is so not true. You can go back home. In this case, the Pampanga Culinary Heritage tours do just that. The visits to all these fantastic places bring you back to the warmth you remember from home.
On this tour, I went back to the basics. I was reminded of how the joys of living simply, and cooking heritage recipes the old fashioned way give more meaning to a meal.
I was brought back to when times were less complex, and the sheer pleasure of a regular day in a small town ….this was what life was all about. Being basically happy with what you had before you. Finding the beauty in your past, so that you could enjoy the present. I was home. And it felt good.
I enjoyed my Pampanga Culinary Heritage Tour so much, that I came back for more Capampangan food. And so I moved on to my next gastronomic adventure….. (to be continued in my next blog post)!
Take pride in your past and enjoy the present. Come and partake of the Pampanga Culinary Heritage Tours and other fun day trips like the Mt. Pinatubo Fun Trek and more. Check out Outer Eater Fun Tours & Treks with Poch Jorolan, Tour Guide & Operator. Follow @pochjorolan on Twitter for more info on this and other fantastic Pampanga tours. For info on Ocampo-Lansang Turrones de Casoy, Sta. Rita Burquillos, Bale nang Juan, and Atching Lillian Borromeo, contact Poch Jorolan at [email protected]
Notes: Reference on the origin of Pampanga was from “Views from the Pampang”, a terrific blogspot by my friend, former colleague, creative genius, Alex R. Castro, iconic and multi-awarded Ad Man, author, history buff and Kapampangan through and through. When I asked his permission to quote from his blog he graciously said ” Kekaku kakuka” (“What is mine is yours, what is yours is mine.”). Dacal a salamat, cabalen! (Thanks so much, my townmate! )