Tales from the Legarda mansion
- Tingting Cojuangco () - April 20, 2008 - 12:00am

Was I a little girl so the house seemed so large to me? Was I scared of the tall staircase because the darkness met me at the top? Or was it because at the top there hung the scary portrait of Salome holding the head of St. John the Baptist? I ran very fast every time I passed in front of that priceless oil painting by Juan Luna.

That art deco residence seemed huge to me at eight years old. Now I approached it from a historical and sentimental perspective — the Legarda mansion built by Doña Filomena Legarda in 1937 on San Rafael Street, one of the most elegant avenues in Manila, that the Valdes-Prieto-Roces and Legarda clans dominated. In each relative’s surrounding walls was a little gate to connect their houses to one another.

Doña Ramona or Tita Moning was a gracious hostess serving her steak, arroz valenciana, rimas and pudding dessert from her numerous recipes. Her parties were always meticulously planned, often held in the dining room or patio surrounded by trees and the settings were systematically arranged so that Emily Post would have been very pleased. That tradition has been passed on to Suzette Legarda Montinola through Cocina de Tita Moning, a mansion turned into a house of cuisine. Suzette is granddaughter to Tita Moning. Our elegant  aunt was married to the kindest doctor, Alejandro, and they had four children — Filomena, Carmen, Alejandro and Ramon — all of whom grew up to be doctors. In their youth, the family homes were owned by sisters and the cousins of the Valdes-Prieto-Roces and Legarda clans.

Tita Moning was the sister of my grandmother Lucia Gavira Hernandez of Dingle, Iloilo. Their father was Gen. Adriano Hernandez, a former General in the revolution of 1896 to 1898 and later he became the director of agriculture in the early 1900s.

Alejandro, or Tito Mandu to us, was a photographer who took thousands of pictures and arrived late in bringing me into this world because he biked from San Rafael in the Arlegui area to Roberts in Pasay City. His home serves as a showcase of his and his wife’s legacy. That home was gradually restored by their children and today has become one of Manila’s premier dining places. You have to call a day before or early in the morning if you’re dining there so Tining or Monet and Emilie can ready your menu for the day.

La Cocina de Tita Moning brings as a special treat Suzette’s exhibition in all family rooms. It’s a glimpse into the Legarda-Hernandez life during the 1940s to the 21st century. The house highlights significant pieces and areas of interest. Upon entering, on the left wall is a blue painting by Filipino artist Oscar Zalameda entitled “Sailboats.” It was painted in the French Riviera during the time Zalameda was based in France.

On the ground floor is a library where the collections of rare medical books and encyclopedias are kept behind class cases, as they were when I was 14 years old. There is also a small door behind the library where a dark room for Tito Mandu’s photographic film development used to be.

Down the hall of the house, to the left, is a display of antique camera equipment used by Tito Mandu, who was a founding member of the Camera Club of the Philippines. At the time of his death in 1993, he was recognized as its oldest living member of the club. Among the photographs on display in his hallway is a tree-lined Dewey Boulevard or Roxas Boulevard in the 1930s; the photo was developed by Tito Mandu himself in his small dark room. His clinic was where we were treated of our sore throats, water in our ears from swimming and tummy aches; women also gave birth here. That human skeleton in his clinic gave me the creeps. Today, I am more clinical about seeing it dangling straight up from its back.

In the living room upstairs, the centerpiece is a painting dated 1901 hanging on the right wall entitled “La Inocencia” by National Artist Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo while in Paris. Was she Hidalgo’s girlfriend in Paris? No one knows. Neither did I know that Juan Luna, who painted Salome, had his studio on Alix St., now Legarda St., beside the jewelry store of Doña Margarita Sandoval, wife of Don Teodoro delos Reyes y Mendoza, my great-great-grandparents.

From the living room at the left side one heads toward the dining room but is distracted because of antique radio equipment. We used to endlessly hear, “Come on over…Beep beep” the whole day while playing with dolls.

The most significant feature of Cocina is the dining room where a collection of blue-and-red Meissen plates is displayed on the walls. These plates were ordered by Don Benito Legarda, uncle of Tito Mandu, for banquets so you can imagine how old they are! Each plate is hand-painted and lined with gold. There are no two plates in the entire set with exactly the same design. These plates were used for dinners with William Howard Taft, the first civil-governor of the Philippines, as a guest of the house.

And now, about the chinaware, glassware and silverware we used in Cocina de Tita Moning. They are part of the collection of Tito Mandu and Tita Moning’s inheritance and travels. The Murano birds adorning the table were purchased by Tita Moning herself during her first trip to Italy. They were used as table centrepieces during banquets in the 1920s. In every setting there is a bell at the head of each table. The idea was for Don Alejandro and Doña Ramona to ring the servants when they were needed.

The meals were lavish seven-course meals, or one-course or three courses served efficiently. They would tell the maids to never put the dish of food on the table while serving, an old-world practice by the staff who have worked for the Legardas (they have become part of the family and are Spanish-speaking, too). The fabulous menu of lengua with white wine sauce is meltingly tender. Paella Valenciana is full of flavor and garnished with enormous prawns. Roast pork is slowly cooked for four hours and garnished with crisp, crackling skin. And then there is Tita Moning’s famous bread pudding, which has no equal; it’s buttery, rich with custard and studded with caramelized pili nuts.

All these things —the house, menu, décor, paintings and personal family memorabilia — are bound to live in many memories, yours and mine.

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