MANILA, Philippines - It is one of the few existing towns in the Philippines that has successfully preserved the Spanish colonial town planning system, where at the center of the town is the plaza, surrounded by the church, a school, the municipal hall and some large houses. Pila in Laguna is an easy two hours’ drive south of Manila via the South Luzon Expressway, but as the van we were riding approached the town plaza, we immediately felt as if we had been transported to another time in some distant past.
We notice the massive baroque church — typical of the churches built during the Spanish period — facing an open field. Standing right across from it is the municipal hall, built in the later architectural style of the American period. We are welcomed inside one of the quaint, charming houses standing right along the same street as the municipal hall. This is the Corazon Rivera House, one of a number of heritage houses around the plaza that’s been well maintained by its owners.
“It is a common misconception that the houses here are Hispanic in design; actually, these houses were built in the 1930s during the American period,” says Cora Relova, granddaughter of the original owner of the house and a member of one of the town’s pioneering clans. Over a refreshing early afternoon merienda of puto and kesong puti, maja blanca and fresh buko juice, Relova engaged us with stories about her hometown — its rich pre-Hispanic history as a center of culture and trade in Laguna, and the honorable title La Noble Villa de Pila, which was conferred to it by the Spanish king. In May 2000, the National Historical Institute declared Pila’s town center as a National Historical Landmark.
It’s a short stroll from the Corazon Rivera House to Pila church, one of the oldest churches in Laguna. Dedicated to San Antonio de Padua, a relic of the garment of the saint, known for receiving prayers from people who have lost things, can be found at the back of the altar. In July 2002, the parish church was proclaimed the Diocesan Shrine of St. Anthony.
We visit another heritage house nearby, that of Monina Rivera, a cousin of Cora Relova. The ground level of the two-story house had been repurposed to house a drugstore, as some of the other old houses in the vicinity have also been converted into shops and cafes. Our final stop on our brief walking tour was the municipal hall, just as the office workers were calling it a day. From the balcony overlooking the town plaza, we saw some children walking on their way home from school.
The San Miguel-PureFoods Culinary Center organized this heritage cum food tour of the southern province of Laguna, to present a side of Laguna that people are not so familiar with. Other than its popular hot springs and waterfalls, buko pie and kesong puti, “the tour’s stops were carefully chosen to show that Laguna is so much more than what it is usually known for,” San Miguel PureFoods culinary services manager and chef Llena Tan Arcenas noted. “The food, culture and traditions that the province keeps are worth discovering. We were also particularly interested in Laguna because the culinary scene has grown over the last few years, including locavore cuisine, and part of this evolution is using San Miguel PureFoods products in local recipes.”
We arrived at our second stop in the town of Santa Cruz, just in time for dinner at Aurora, a family-owned restaurant set up in an ancestral house, which was built in the late 1920s. “Since the majority of the ancestral homes that were turned into restaurants in Laguna are also owned by the chefs, guests get an authentic experience of how it was dining during the time of our great-grandparents. Our preservation is fueled by our passion and advocacy in promoting southern Tagalog cuisine,” remarked chef Day Salonga who runs the restaurant, together with his business partner chef Mon Urbano and sister Gel Salonga, a top pastry chef. Their family also owns Ted’s, a popular American-themed restaurant in Santa Cruz.
That evening, chefs Mon, Gel and Day did a cooking demo featuring heirloom recipes using San Miguel PureFoods products. The Chicken Wings Adobo, using Magnolia Chicken Wings, was based on a 1920s recipe of Isidra Guevara, wife of former senator Pedro Guevara from Santa Cruz. Chef Gel also showed us how to make Bibingka Cheesecake with La Pacita Graham Crackers.
For dinner, the local dishes that were served included minanok (banana heart cooked in burnt coconut cream and served with maruya); tinuto (minced shrimps and coconut meat wrapped in taro leaves with rich coconut cream sauce); and inalamangang baboy (fresh alamang sautéed in chunky Monterey pork pieces).
We spent the night at Sulyap, a charming bed and breakfast located at the Cocoland Compound in Brgy Del Remedio in San Pablo City. The rooms, with their polished wooden floors and capiz sliding windows, are reminiscent of a gentler time in an almost forgotten past. The casas are actually old houses that were transported part by part from elsewhere and reconstructed within the more than two-hectare property. Casa de Cabay from Tiaong in Quezon serves as the café-restaurant. Casa Alitagtag, which is located near the café, was sourced from Bulacan, while the third house, Casa Obando, came from Batangas. A fourth house, from Paete, Laguna, will be the next addition.
“It’s a work in progress,” says Sulyap proprietor Roy Empalmado, a former importer of Spanish wines and antiques dealer. He has transformed a three-story building that used to be a schoolhouse inside the property into some kind of museum for his vast collection of antique furniture like old aparadors and hard wood dining tables as well as vintage items like old phonographs and rotary phones. There is also a function hall that can be used for special events such as wedding receptions, exuding Old World charm. “My advocacy is to help preserve our cultural heritage,” he says.
Chef Rene Ruz of San Miguel PureFoods Culinary Center presided over the breakfast buffet the next morning. There was a Magnolia pancake station, a Magnolia egg station, sautéed PureFoods corned beef, deep-fried PureFoods Honeycured Bacon as well as Sulyap’s fried bangus and pork tapa. For the coffee drinkers, there was San Mig Barako and Strong Sugar-free coffee in sachets.
On our way to Sampaloc Lake, which was to be the final stop of our day tour of Laguna, we made a short stop at a bibingka stand along the national road. Chef Rene arranged for us to see how the special bibingka was made, using dried coconut husk for fuel, which gives it a subtle flavor. A common practice among the vendors is to spread Star margarine to melt on top of the bibingka while it’s still hot, which makes it taste even more scrumptious.
Sampaloc Lake is the largest of seven lakes in San Pablo City. From a checkered history of pristine beauty, deteriorating into a polluted lake crowded with fish pens and surrounded by girlie bars, there is now a concerted drive to restore the lake and its surroundings to its natural beauty. Advocates of this rehabilitation effort are the siblings Tony and Mandy Marino, who own a small restaurant named Café Lago in their ancestral house overlooking the lake.
The bars are gone now and the informal settlers relocated. On a weekday afternoon, you can see a group of young boys cheerfully biking along the paved sidewalks. An itinerant vendor offers you freshly-made kesong puti packaged in banana leaf. A dragon boat race was once held on the lake, and jazz nights have been held under the full moon at Café Lago, says Tony, who is known to be the first Pinoy to perform on Broadway. They might hold another one of those events, Tony says, “whenever the spirit moves us.”
For lunch, Café Lago served their best seller, Buttered Chicken, which actually used Star margarine, served with Pako Salad. Dessert was Fried Halo-Halo topped with Magnolia Vanilla ice cream.
It was a smooth ride back to Manila via the expressway until we hit the late Friday afternoon traffic snag on EDSA. Nonetheless, it was comforting to know that there are such places, not too far away, where one can seek solace from urban stress, even if only for a day. Photos by JULIE CABATIT-ALEGRE