Farm to table dining at The Pen

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By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter

DON’T YOU just sometimes fantasize about throwing everything away and moving somewhere to start a farm? Well, if that fantasy is too much to actually do, from May 15 to June 2, at Peninsula Manila’s Old Manila, one can get a literal taste of it through a degustacion menu built on farm-fresh produce.

Chef Allan Briones, Old Manila’s Chef de Cuisine, outdid himself at a tasting earlier this week, using vegetables from Holy Carabao Farms. The promotion is part of a collaboration between the hotel and the farm founded by Hindy Weber Tantoco and Melanie Teng-Go who themselves went the “chuck everything, I’m moving to a farm route.” Actually, they were looking for good organic food for their children and decided to grown their own.

Holy Carabao — which is located in Laguna — declares that it uses no GMOs, synthetic pesticides, fungicides, or chemical fertilizers, and that its products are grown using biodynamic and permaculture principles. It also makes this promise on its website: “We harvest all our food — be it plant or animal — mindfully and humanely, in harmony with the natural cycles of our planet and the solar system.”

It grows everything from alugbati (vine spinach) to calamansi (a native lime), from edible flowers to Tuscan kale. Its animal products range from eggs and chicken to pork and beef, and its pantry products range from chicken stock and coco sugar, to dried danggit to wild forest honey. It also has carabao and goat milk and dairy products made from them.

Its products can be delivered direct from the farm to the customer’s home (it delivers from Cabuya to New Manila), and are also available at its Farmers Market in Poblacion, Makati City.

The first course that evening was a Poached Canadian lobster, served on a bed of banana heart, crab roe, cassava crisp, and powdered kaffir lime, drizzled with a foam made out of the same lobster. The taste of the sea was most evident in the lobster foam, while the whole composition was clean and fresh, with a nice bite from chilies and the cassava crisp.

The next course was a Roasted Root Vegetable Tartlet, made with layers of cassava, carrots, beetroot, and ube (purple yam). Underneath the creation was a gastrique of beetroot juice, with a confit of cherry tomatoes on the side. You’d think that the entire treat would be bland and heavy, but there’s a hint of wood and smoke in the vegetables giving an element of excitement, while the weight was comforting.

The meal started to become a bit serious with the third course, a Roasted Chicken Consomme with a flan of heritage corn, moringa blossoms, and chicken cracklings. We’ve used the word “clean” a lot in describing the dishes, but you can’t skip the adjective when a soup almost clear as glass is poured out in front of you. Layers of flavor are provided by the flan of heritage corn and the moringa blossoms — which, if you haven’t encountered them before, are white and delicate, looking a bit like jasmine, and have a bitter vegetal taste punctuated with a bit of sweetness at the end. As for the whole effect — well: if you could distill the loud, clear crow of a rooster on a farm, this is what it would probably taste like.

The riotous dinner conversations ended for at least 10 seconds when the next course came out, a Smoked Halibut Fillet with a spiced cashew sauce, a crisp adlai puff, and pickled oyster mushrooms. The silence was a bit like a deep breath one takes before embarking on an adventure, because the spiced cashew nut sauce, which had a whiff of curry, tasted like a promise to an exotic land.

Everyone at the tasting thought that a great moment had passed, and could not be repeated again, until Mr. Briones came out with a Grilled Berkshire Pork Tenderloin. It was prepared sous-vide in sage butter prior to a grilling that yielded a nice sear, and accompanied by sweet pickled jacon, roasted squash ravioli, then sprinkled with nasturtium flowers. The meat was tender as an embrace, and frankly, I fell a bit in love with every bite, and I urged a fellow diner who couldn’t finish the hefty serving to eat it all up, to make the pig’s sacrifice worth it.

What came last was dessert — a pineapple and coconut custard encased in a milk chocolate shell, scored and scratched to form the illusion of a coconut. It made a delightful tap when cracked, and for someone with a personal vendetta against coconuts, the custard was quite a treat.

Organic farming came about as a protest against unhealthy and unsustainable farming practices that people believed brought illness to those who consumed fruits and vegetables positively dripping with chemicals and pesticides. However, one must remember that these farming techniques go beyond just spreading manure and are an advancement of technology, and have aided in providing more produce for more people, taking a small step to close the yawning gap of world hunger.

In any case, we asked Mr. Briones that healthy effects aside, can you really tell the difference if you’re biting into something organic? He noted that the cherry tomatoes he used that evening had an earthiness that he couldn’t spot in store-bought tomatoes, which he says were sweeter in comparison.

“I think this collaboration is more of a [call for] awareness [that] people should eat and start using organic produce,” he said, while saying that he wished he had a farm from where he could just pluck stuff off the stem.

“Yes, it does make a huge difference. It has an advantage, because you retain much of the freshness and quality of the produce.”

The degustacion menu for Farm to Table Holy Carabao Organic Eats in Old Manila costs P3,850++, and will be available from May 15 to June 2.

For more information on Holy Carabao, visit