All roads lead to the stomach

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WE’D LIKE to think that the hours spent in cars and the hours spent waiting for a meal feel the same: both measures of time were made to exist to make the final results more rewarding.

During the first week of October, San Miguel took guests across the TPLEx (the Tarlac–Pangasinan–La Union Expressway), the concession of which is held by the conglomerate. Other infrastructure developments in the country linked to San Miguel include the South Luzon Expressway, the Skyway system, the STAR Tollway, NAIA-X, the Boracay Airport, and the MRT-7, among others.

The possibilities opened by the TPLEx include cutting short travel times, but for many communities along the route, it opened up tourism opportunities for stops that once would have been inaccessible.

San Miguel first took us to Nampicuan, in Nueva Ecija, home to the Sanctuary of the Holy Face, which possesses a replica of the Holy Veil of Manoppello. The veil is believed to be an imprint of the face of Jesus Christ, one of the many claimants to being the cloth with which St. Veronica wiped the face of Jesus during his agonies. The one in the Philippines, and the only one in Asia, is indeed a replica, but it had the good fortune of touching the original in Italy.

After the church, our spirits were teased further with a swipe of ylang-ylang essential oils from Anao, Tarlac, which has a steam distillation factory in the town. The ylang-ylang plants which fuel the local industry are grown around the town, and, wouldn’t you know it, also along the expressway.

Finally, food: our watches were ticking, and after leaving Manila at 8 a.m., we arrived at our first food stop at approximately 1 p.m. In a restaurant called Ruperto’s in Binalonan, we saw how Binalonan longganisa was made, a proud product of the town. The sausages were crispier than what we’re used to, and altogether quite a good treat.

Next, after a drive straight through the expressway, we finally arrived in Baguio, one of the highlights of the trip.

We stopped by a restaurant called Farmer’s Daughter, named in honor of the owner’s grandmother, who was a daughter of, you guessed it, a farmer. The owner, a man named Pil Od, was also taught by his grandfather how to raise then butcher animals in the way of the Ibaloy, and the restaurant serves to honor and promote the ways of his people. It’s useful, because one of the easiest ways to know about a people is to watch how they eat, for their food will serve as sustenance for the rest of their activities.

An important tenet of Ibaloy cuisine is preservation. While blessed with cold weather, back in the day, refrigeration techniques were foreign, thus we were served a dish of Kinuday, beef or pork that had been smoked, steamed, then stir-fried. The result was multiple layers of flavors and texture, and a meat dish that you’ll dream about once you get back to the cities down below. This was complemented with a dinakdakan, pig’s face mixed with pig’s brain, resulting in creaminess and crisp. And what’s a highland meal without Pinikpikan? The dish, akin to the lowlanders’ tinola, is made from chicken. The dish is a horror for animal rights activists, for it involves softly beating (or irritating) a chicken with a stick until it bleeds into its muscles, resulting in a more flavorful, more dark-colored meat. If you don’t have any qualms about this, it is very tasty.

Our favorite stop, in any place in the world, is Mama’s Table. Fortunately, it’s also a name of a restaurant in Baguio, for which Manilenos can fight about reservations. Some reserve months in advance, for chef Vicky Clemente does not accept any bookings and reservations for parties less than six. Ms. Clemente runs a private dining experience from a grand mountain retreat left behind by her parents.

For dinner that evening, Ms. Clemente unleashed her knowledge of French cooking learned from Canada in a nine-course meal. We started out with dips, our favorite being a Bagna Cauda (an anchovy-garlic dip with vegetable crudites). As we sat down at the table, we eagerly awaited for an amuse bouche, a quiche in an eggshell with caramelized onions, gruyere and parmesan, local mushrooms, and truffle oil. It had an earthy taste and a delicate play on textures, for it was surprisingly fluffy and light despite its heavy taste and appearance.

Next came a squash soup with smoked bacon and grated apples, and, frankly, it was one of our favorites. It captured the taste of autumn air; thick and crisp, but made steamy by the fire indoors.

An intermezzo of feta puff pastry followed, after which a Baked Norwegian salmon appeared, with zucchini, peas, orange supremes, and citrus beurre blanc. This was an examination in lightness, in taste and in texture. Another intermezzo of sweet and salty cheese followed, then out of the kitchen came a Roasted Chicken Breast stuffed with sage, various cheeses, and topped with bacon; with red wine reduction and a mushroom jus. This was a masterpiece in itself, the chicken perfectly tender and absorbing and summarizing all that went into it; perfectly condensing hours of labor in just one bite — or seven.

A salad, then a dessert of Toblerone Mousse and Creme Brulee ended the meal, after which younger guests played with a guitar and the guitarist, and drank beer and gin from San Miguel.

Now the meal was interesting, but nowhere as interesting as Ms. Clemente’s life. She was a teacher in Manila who migrated to Canada to become a banker, then a paralegal. She told BusinessWorld that she had been cooking since she was a little girl, and her family entertained a lot. “I really wasn’t taking the work that seriously, but I did well,” she remembered. A trip to Italy with her sisters made her think about the 15 years she would still spend within a law firm, and she decided to take up cooking courses to hone a skill she had kept burning in her heart. She was 50 years old.

Mama’s Kitchen was her culinary course thesis, basing it upon the important women in her life, and she modified their recipes with French techniques. She flew back to the Philippines to take care of her ailing father. She then went on to open her restaurant sometime after.

She compared her life before in the corporate world to the relatively sedate life she leads now (except when she’s in the kitchen).

’Pag cooking kasi, instant gratification (you get instant gratification from cooking).” This was unlike her former life of bringing documents home to wrestle over them after dinner. “Kapag nagluto ka ng pangit, alam mong pangit. Kapag nagluto ka ng masarap, alam mong masarap (When you cook something badly, you know it’s bad. When you make something nice, you’ll know it’s nice.)” — Joseph L. Garcia