Monday, October 3, 2011

A Silay Treasure -- Emma Lacson's Pili Squares

I discovered a Silaynon treasure that I think will keep me going back to this wonderful city time and again. For the simple reason that this treasure can be found only in one place, in one house in Silay.

I speak of those tidbits of ambrosial goodness -- Emma Lacson's Pili Squares.
This small, elegantly designed maroon box hides a confectionary triumph.
The pili squares are mildly nutty, moist, chewy, buttery yet not cloying or oily. A box contains pre-cut 2 inch long bars that have a flaky, thin crust on the bottom.
Surprisingly, the bars are also not too sweet -- something that I cannot say for most of Negros' candies and pastries -- which definitely adds to their delectable taste.
I have had pili mazapan and pili pastries in Bicol -- where it is acclaimed as the regional delicacy but nothing I have tasted in Bicol compares to this Silaynon treat.

You can buy these delicacies from the old Lacson heritage house in Silay City, right along the main road, across a BPI bank branch. Just knock on the green gate and someone will let you in.

We were led up right to the kitchen on the second floor. I saw the tin pans and the ovens that are used in making the pili squares. This huge steel topped table is where the bars are cooled and sliced before they are wrapped in foil and boxed.

This old heavy duty mixer is still in use and has probably churned out millions of pili squares since this delicacy has been around since 1925.
Emma Lacson passed away last year but her daughter continues to make the pili squares from her mother's secret recipe.

The Lacson kitchen is comforting in its homespun simplicity. While we wait for orders, something good is cooking and the smells waft across the room.

Laden with boxes of pili squares (which somehow are never quite enough once you get home and start eating them), we make the long trek down the steep stairs outside the house.
The stairs are quite high and we have to make sure not to trip or slip -- not so much for our safety we joke, but for the safekeeping of the precious bundles of Emma Lacson's Pili Squares.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Going back in time -- Hacienda Rosalia in Manapla

One of the very special experiences I enjoyed this past trip to Bacolod was to have visited the old Gaston mansion, centerpiece of Hacienda Rosalia in Manapla, an hour's drive away from Bacolod City.
The Gaston Mansion, a cultural heritage house in Negros, sometimes opens its doors to private groups. It can be arranged that lunch will be served by the household staff as part of the tour.
We were fortunate that our tour guide, the aforementioned Bambi Borromeo, was a good friend of the current resident and owner of the Gaston Mansion -- no less than the esteemed retired prelate, Monsignor Guillermo Gaston.
Perhaps Bambi said, he might be home and we would meet him during lunch.

The Gaston Mansion may look familiar to you, if you have seen Peque Gallaga's 1982 masterpiece, Oro Plata Mata.
This stately and elegant house hidden within the heart of Hacienda Rosalia is set amidst lush, verdant grounds.
The gorgeous garden is a study in disheveled orderliness. Flowers, shrubs, trees, potted palms, herbs -- a riot of color and greenery!

We were amazed upon entering the second floor dining room.
The long, 24 seater antique wooden table was formally set for five.
Crystal stemware, antique silverware, fine china and linen napkins brought back visions of a bygone age when people still saw mealtimes as formal occasions.
It was going to be a very special lunch.

And special it was indeed! Monsignor Gaston was at home and very kindly stayed with us over lunch, regaling us with stories of the Hacienda, the mansion, his studies, travels and experiences.
The conversation was stimulating and scintillating -- I closed my eyes and imagined that I was taking part in a tertulia, the setting was just so right!

Monsignor Gaston has found culinary acclaim among his friends for his French Onion soup. His many years in France during his younger days helped him master this classic french recipe.

The table just outside the dining room, on the breezy azotea overlooking the garden, was laid out with a buffet of the house specialties. While it was Monsignor who cooked our soup, his staff have been trained to prepare the traditional recipes handed down from generations of Gastons.

Each dish was identified by a handwritten place card.
The rice was elegantly presented, molded into a perfect round and sprinkled with finely chopped herbs, taken from the garden.

We were served tender pork chops, cooked in olive oil and with tomatoes and a lively, piquant mustard sauce.

Another traditional Gaston heirloom dish was the Adobo Milyonario.
The everyday chicken and pork adobo had been simmered and stewed till falling off the bone tender. Lightly sauced with drippings, garlic, soy sauce and olive oil -- it was transformed into a dish fit for the most discerning palate!
While I no longer eat meat, I enjoyed this vicariously through my friends who, unmindful of the genteel and small appetites that characterized ladies of a bygone era, went back for seconds and thirds of this dish!

Thankfully, Monsignor Gaston also served Garlicky Prawns -- there they were, fat and fresh, redolent with garlic and butter. The sauce was heavy with shrimp aligue. I could not resist.
Yes, I spooned the sauce over my rice.
Que barbaridad!

We started the meal with a classic French soup, we ended it with a classic French dessert.
Crepes aux creme de marrons. Thin, melt in your mouth crepes with a sweet chestnut filling and with whole candied marrons on top.

After lunch, we left Monsignor Gaston who had to leave to say mass in another town.
We walked through the back of the house, taking a shortcut to the hacienda's very own private chapel.
Called the Chapel of the Cart Wheels, it was designed and built by Monsignor Gaston to serve as the center for worship for the family and all the people who lived in the hacienda.

The chapel stands across the fields behind the house. Shaped like a tall, outsized and stylized native salakot, the structure is made of items that are indigenous to Hacienda Rosalia and its daily endeavours.

Serving as base of the wooden, cone shaped roof are dozens of old, used cart wheels, taken from the carts that used to haul sugar cane from the hacienda's fields to the sugar mill.
When he designed this chapel, the monsignor wanted a place that would celebrate the people of Hacienda Rosalia. A place that would give glory to God through the work of their hands.
Ora et labora. Prayer and work.

The old cart wheels form the walls of the chapel, giving it a cool and airy atmosphere.

The portion behind the altar is made of native stone which adds to the coolness of the interiors. The rest of the round structure is fully made up of the cart wheels, they function as windows and walls, even as a stylized frame for the Christ above the stone altar.
This chapel is consecrated and Monsignor says mass here every Sunday and during holy days of obligation. Weddings and baptisms are regularly held here.
It is the hacienda's parish church.

For me, The Chapel of the Cart Wheels is a unique and extremely personal expression of faith.
The faith of Monsignor Gaston and of his flock in Hacienda Rosalia.