Sagada: An Unexpected Culinary Paradise
- Catherine Jones () - April 20, 2008 - 12:00am

In the middle of the Mountain Province, nestled among pine trees and blooming flowers, 5,000 feet above sea level, lies a tiny village called Sagada. This hamlet, renowned for its ancient hanging coffins, prehistoric limestone caves, underground waterways, and time-honored hand-weaving tradition, is now also famous for its surprisingly good food, a twist of fate that occurred about a decade ago. Nowadays, a number of intrepid travelers journey to Sagada just for the food! 

To reach Sagada is a bit tricky, especially on a rainy day in a shroud of fog. Our journey began in Baguio, in a drizzling rain which rapidly morphed into a downpour. As our car slipped and slid on the muddy roads I held my breath, clutched my husband’s hand, and prayed. Around sharp curves, I leaned towards the mountain, hoping that my weight would somehow spare us from rolling off the side of the cliff. My two children, glued to their portable movie screens in the back seat, were blissfully oblivious to the vertiginous terrain. After eight long hours of back-aching, bladder-bruising bumps, we finally reached Sagada. I now understand why the pass between Bontoc and Sagada is affectionately called Abortion Road.  

We checked into the Olahbinan Hotel and wobbled our stiff legs to St. Joseph’s Rest House and Inn where we dined on vegetarian spaghetti, pancit, and roasted native chicken. I realized that it was the vegetables – tasty, crunchy, and perfectly fresh – that made everything taste so good.  

The next morning, our 6 a.m. wake-up call came from a rowdy rooster. As advised by friends, we went to the Yoghurt House for a scrumptious breakfast of crepe-like pancakes filled with homemade Greek-style yogurt and sliced bananas. The walls of this cozy joint are a gallery of photographs of local sights and people worth climbing over customers to see.  

Fortified, we picked up our 39-year-old guide, Pep, at City Hall. First stop: Eco Park to see the hanging coffins. The oldest is more than 200 years, and the newest was mounted against the limestone cliff in 2007. I was equally fascinated by the hanging chair on top of the coffin and asked Pep to explain. “That’s for the spirit of the deceased to rest,” he said. In another source, I read that a cadaver was tied to the death-chair so family and friends could say goodbye, ask for final blessings or solutions to problems, or voice their requests. Both sources are probably correct on some level.

Market day was reaching full swing as we drove back through the town. The main drag was abuzz with vendors perched under their colorful beach umbrellas hawking everything from car batteries and toilet paper to dried fish and gorgeous organic produce. Babies were strapped to their mothers, who were busy shopping for the week. Market day only happens on Saturdays in Sagada.  

Next stop: Sumaging Cave. I’m not into spelunking, but I’m also not about to miss out on an adventure either. Holding a kerosene lamp on his head, Pep led us into the dark grotto. Barefoot, with splayed toes clinging to rocks like a lizard’s, he scaled and jumped from rock to rock. And, like a trail of ants, we followed his footsteps, trying our best to maintain traction on the slippery bat poop. My one bit of advice regarding Sumaging Cave is: Don’t stop half-way through like I did and miss seeing the miniature lake. Reports from the rest of my group described the crystal clear pool and glistening, sandpaper-textured rocks as “awesome, way cool, and worth a trip back.” I began to sulk. 

But my spirits were instantly revived by a side-trip to Pep’s brother’s apiary, where bees in 60 houses make 200 kilos of light-golden sunflower honey every year. Pep’s brother, Man, an engineer by trade, gave us a brief lesson in honey production.

“Timing is critical. You must get honey when it’s hot and the bees have less energy.” Perfect logic one could apply to human life as well. He went on to say that if bees feast on coffee plants, the honey is darker. I bought 20 jars, most to give as gifts. I’m still enjoying my stash. 

After the honey, we viewed more hanging coffins (some with visible bones through termite-eaten holes), until finally, it was time for dinner. Luckily, without reservations, we managed to squeeze into the Log Cabin Restaurant, which friends had told us is a must, only they forgot to mention that reservations are required. Dave Gulian, the owner, a kind and soft-spoken gentleman, must have read the desperation on my face. 

 “Do you mind sharing a table in the kitchen?” Dave asked.  

“No,” I said immediately.  

When I stepped into the Log Cabin’s kitchen, the warmth and smells of roasting pork and baking bread made me homesick. I expected to see my mother behind the stove whipping together one of her famously delicious family dinners in her New Hampshire kitchen.  

I marveled over the offerings at the buffet: pork loin with blueberry-cinnamon sauce and golden-roasted potatoes, carrots with sunflower honey, tomatoes with watercress and fern salad, creamy chicken tarragon, locally-grown organic red rice, broccoli-and-cauliflower gratin, eggplants and tomatoes, home-baked whole wheat bread with sweet butter, all topped off with a decadent chocolate nougat cake and indigenous Arabica coffee and mountain tea. I gleefully did what all of the other diners were doing, and helped myself to a taste of everything. 

Our tablemates, a charming couple from the British Embassy, arrived with their two friends visiting from France. We shared our driving nightmares, cave adventures, and hanging coffin stories over red wine. Dave stopped by our table and explained that the Log Cabin Restaurant opened almost 20 years ago. The elusive French chef, who creates the magic behind the stove, arrived in Sagada about eight years ago (lucky for us he decided to stay).  

“What inspired you to open this restaurant?” I asked Dave. 

“No restaurants were around twenty years ago. We planned to make a restaurant for tourists and locals. The other restaurants in town opened about ten years ago. We have customers who come all the way from Manila just for our Saturday dinner buffet,” he said.   

Good food and good wine shared around a table with new friends and lively conversation in the middle of nowhere – life just doesn’t get any better.

Oh, and thank you Dave for squeezing us in and making the bone-breakingly bouncy ride to Sagada worth the trip.

 Log Cabin Restaurant seats 53 diners at one seating at 7 pm. Open every night for dinner. Buffet dinner only on Saturday nights. Book at least 2 weeks in advance. They also have one room available in their Inn. Book that one month in advance. Holy Week and Christmas are the busiest times. Call Dave Guilan at 0920-520-0463 to reserve.

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