Monday, November 30, 2015

Nangankan? Umayka ditoy, mangan ka pay! -- The Amigos go on an Ilokano "diet".

The title is in Ilokano and translates to "Kumain ka na?" (Have you eaten?) "Halika dito, kumain ka muna". (Come over and have a bite.) 
The Amigos did not need more than one invitation to eat.  We certainly tried to sample as much of the local fare as we could,  on this North Luzon Camino.  

Our base in Laoag was the B&B Balay da Blas which is also where the very popular and well regarded restaurant Saramsam is based. Both are owned by Sammy Blas who is a passionate advocate of all things Ilokano -- particularly culture and cuisine. 
Saramsam is my favourite restaurant in Ilocos Norte, I truly admire Sammy Blas' inventive yet authentic take on traditional Ilokano dishes.

What was on the dinner table?  For starters, creamy poqui poqui, which we also enjoyed as a pizza  although no photos were taken before the pizza was completely devoured. 
This very Ilokano dish of grilled eggplant mixed with soft scrambled egg, shallots (or lasona as they are locally called), garlic and tomatoes sounds obscenely funny and always gets me a shocked 
reply  -- "Huh?  WHAT are we eating???!" 
But one spoonful of this very scrumptious dish convinces first timers that poqui poqui is indeed a must  try Ilokano staple.

We could never tire of pakbet, particularly the G.I. (genuine Ilokano) version.  The real pakbet does not use shrimp bagoong nor does it have kalabasa.  Instead, fish bagoong is used and all sorts of local vegetables find their way into the palayok -- like alucon, patani, okra, the small native ampalaya and talong and my favourite, the deadly-looking-but-absolutely-no-heat siling duwag.  

Since this was dinner time, I avoided ordering bagnet so that we would not have nightmares brought on by too much fat and cholesterol.
However, I still ordered pork but in the form of insarabasab, which in Ilokano means "cooked over fire".  Insarabasab is grilled parts of the pig's head like  nguso, pisngi and tenga along with the more "acceptable" pigue and kasim.   
What makes insarabasab so deliciously different from plain grilled pork?  I think it's the blend of textures from the various parts of the pig plus the garnish / marinade that includes  calamansi, sukang iloko, ginger,  garlic and lasona (shallots).  
Here's a tip -- once you add creamy mayonnaise to insarabasab, it transforms itself into dinakdakan, another well known Ilokano dish.

Nagimas ti sidain!  Ang sarap ng ulam (the food was delicious).  But now it was time for dessert. 
I knew exactly what I wanted the Amigos to try -- kalti.  
Sammy Blas lifts up to fine dining levels something that you would normally classify as street food -- minatamis na saging at kamote at bilo-bilo (sweetened bananas and yams and sticky rice balls).
At Saramsam, the waitstaff call this the Ilokano fondue.  A sauce of caramelised brown sugar with sticky rice balls bubbles merrily on top of a small candle.  
The fried banana and yam slices are meant to be dipped in the sweet sauce.  Yummy!  
It's deconstructed banana and camote cue!

Thank you Saramsam -- now how do you like our "pabebe" wave?

The next day, there were more local specialties for the Amigos to savour.  
While everyone had tried Ilokano empanadas back in Manila,  today we would be enjoying them right at the source.
Batac has always been known as having the best empanadas this side of Ilocos Norte.
Years ago, these were sold by vendors who set up small stalls across the church. 
Today the empanada makers are all housed in this multi-level building called the Batac Riverside Empanadaan, still across  Batac Church.  This Empanadaan is concrete proof that Batac is indeed the Empanada Capital of Ilocos.

Arranged like a food court,  different empanada makers have their own stalls.  
Should we buy from Glory's?  Glomy's?  Or perhaps Lanie's empanadas would be better?

 Our local tour guide Michelle solved the conundrum.  She led us all to Glomy's which she said
was her regular suki.  Aside from empanadas, Glomy's also makes lumpianada, a marriage of lumpia and empanada where the empanada fillings are encased in lumpia wrappers and deep fried.
But no newfangled fusion food for us -- everyone ordered the special empanada.

The special empanada costs P40 making it very affordable (and filling) merienda fare.  The 
regular empanada costs only P30 and would be good for school children on a modest allowance.  
For big spenders, there is the Double Double Empanada which costs P75 (still cheaper than a Big Mac) and consists of double portions of both longganisa and egg.

There is nothing quite like your first bite into a fresh empanada, hot off the frying pan. Sprinkle
each bite with sukang iloko liberally laced with siling labuyo and your mouth is in for an unforgettable Ilokano treat.

Man does not live by empanada alone.  Glomy's as well as the other stalls sell more merienda 
and pulutan fare. The next popular favourite would be these succulent Batac longganisas,  
deep fried and skewered on short bamboo sticks.  A stick costs only P15.   
It goes well with empanada and at night, I am sure it goes even better with ice cold beer.  
Bring out the San Mig light please!

Did the Amigos like their taste of Batac empanada?  Thumbs up!   Naimas!

Having finished a special empanada each, you would think we would be ready to stop eating.  
But lunchtime found us by the shores of Paoay Lake where we had reservations at the newest "in" place in town -- Vista del Lago, also owned by Sammy Blas.

The view from the terrace of Vista del Lago was breathtaking.  Paoay Lake is a protected national 
park and the local government seems to be doing a good job in keeping its blue waters pristine, 
clean and pollution free.  I wish we could sit and dine al fresco and enjoy the marvellous lake view but the Ilokano sun was just too much so I escaped back into the air-conditioned comfort of the main dining room.

A tall glass of freshly brewed tarragon tea with lots and lots of ice cubes restored and revived the Amigos who had been wilting under the unrelenting Ilokano heat.

 Since we just had a heavy merienda of empanadas and longganisa, we resolved to eat a
lighter lunch.  Thankfully, Vista del Lago's menu offers western and international choices in
addition to some choice Ilokano fare.
We decided to try their Ensalada of Saging and Kamatis -- ripe red tomatoes are paired with slices
of boiled saging na saba (bananas)  and topped with cubes of locally made soft cheese.
I had never had saging na saba in a salad before and this creative addition worked quite well.

We also ordered Sammy Blas' version of a seafood fritto misto -- shrimp and squid were lightly floured, quickly fried and topped with garlic and pepper bits.  A smooth honey mustard was the perfect dipping sauce.  I liked the fact that this dish was garnished with a few pieces of deep fried siling duwag.  Served like this, they reminded me so much of their Galician cousins, the pimentos de padron.
 I wish Vista del Lago would offer fresh roasted or fried siling duwag sprinkled with sea salt from Pasuquin -- then it would be another original dish, made with purely local ingredients.

 We had started out with such good intentions -- but I have to confess, the "light" lunch also
included orders of bagnet and igado -- the Ilokano stew of offal and pork meat.  Can you see the guilt
on our faces?  Despensarem!

Despite everyone protesting that we had been eating all day, dinnertime found the Amigos in front
of La Preciosa, an institution in  Laoag's dining scene.  It has been around much longer than Saramsam and offers Ilokano fare cooked the traditional way, as an Ilokano grandmother would have cooked it.

There were still some Ilokano dishes that were waiting to be discovered and La Preciosa was just
the place to try these.
We had lauya (the remains of which you can barely see in the photo above).
Lauya is a simple but very flavourful clear soup of meat bones boiled with garlic, ginger and some vegetables.  Light but a real palate pleaser.
I also made everyone try the Ilokano version of dinuguan called dinardaraan.
I guarantee that you and your arteries will love this dish!
Dinardaraan uses pork meat and pork bituka (intestines) that are fried crisp before being mixed with the pig's blood.  Think of it as dinuguan using lechon kawali and chicharon bituka -- doesn't that just make your blood pressure rise?
It's decadent, it's divine, it's dinardaraan!   Extra rice please!

 We also ordered La Preciosa's poqui poqui, which the Amigos preferred over Saramsam's  eggier version.  And because we started with our Ilokano food tour with pinakbet, our last dinner had to include the same dish, for full and final closure of our foray into the delectable, delicious world of Ilokano food.

 NB.  This is Mayk Mariano, professional photographer and my Amigo.  Because I got caught
up with too much eating and talking,  I forgot to take photos of most of the dishes that we ate.
Thank you Mayk for generously allowing me to use your very professional and appetising food
shots.  I am sure the reader can easily identify which ones are yours -- they're the ones taken with
an artistic and keen eye.  They have certainly improved the quality of my post.
Thanks too to Jay for some of his photos that I also used most specially, this last photo of
Mayk and me.

The Amigos' North Luzon Camino. Day 4 -- And we shopped, shopped and shopped all the way home

Our North Luzon Camino was about to end.  Like Tuguegarao Laoag City is nearly 500 kilometres from Manila so it would be another long day spent on the road.  Thank goodness we were riding in a  very comfortable and huge Coaster that afforded enough room to stand up and even walk around.

We fortified ourselves with one last breakfast in Saramsam, Balay da Blas' acclaimed restaurant.  True to the appeal of this special B&B,  dining at  Saramsam  made me feel like I lived in a traditional Ilokano house,  enjoying a home cooked breakfast of the local longganisa and dried dilis -- doused in plenty of sukang Iloko -- naimas!

Because it was our last day in Ilocos,  it was time to unleash all our pent up shopping desires!  
The day would be devoted to buying all the pasalubong that we could cram into our very spacious Toyota Coaster.  Our first shopping stop was the Laoag Public Market where we made a beeline for the longganisa and bagnet stalls on the second floor.

Bagnet is deep fried, enormous hunks of pork -- usually liempo but kasim or pigue are also used.  Bagnet is not just deep fried, it is twice fried to give it that irresistible crunch.  The pork is first boiled then fried lightly then fried again, to give the skin the crackling that makes it so good and yes, so bad for your health.
The Ilocanos usually call bagnet as chicharon --  I like to call it a "heart attack waiting to happen".

I brought the Amigos to my suki of over 15 years.  This is  Maan who owns C. Acorda Cooked Meat.  
I've blogged about Maan and her bagnet before (    Her longganisa and bagnet are the best I have ever tried. She also supplies many local restaurants and resorts.   Maan  is probably to blame for the bagnet induced cholesterol and calories I have ingested through the years.

Abel cloth, made of 100% cotton and still woven using traditional looms, is available all over Ilocos.  It is transformed into blankets, bath towels, kitchen towels, bedspreads, scarves, blouses, bags, etc. There are good buys at the Laoag Market where the abel products are cheaper  than those sold in souvenir stores in the tourist areas.  Plus, you can haggle with the friendly tinderas
Luming's is another suki that I have been going back to each year.  Don't be put off by the blouses on display,  she has quite a wide range of abel products in the back room.

After the frenzied panic buying in Laoag (where we stocked up on a year's supply of bagnet, longganisa and blankets) we had barely warmed our seats in the coaster before I yelled  "Para" 
(stop!) so that our long suffering driver Derek could park by the roadside.  We were passing 
through  Pinili, Ilocos Norte,  where garlic and lasona (shallot) sellers line the highway.
Ilocano garlic is smaller but more pungent and flavourful.  The larger imported varieties may 
look impressive but are bland and tasteless.   Yes indeed, size does matter.  In this case, the smaller the garlic, the better the taste.

Aside from the garlic and shallots, we also bought sukang iloko, spiced with lots of sili and bawang.  I also bought fish bagoong, an essential ingredient for making authentic Ilokano pakbet.  Three small "bilog" bottles cost me only P50.  What a great buy!

After the roadside stop in Pinili, we made our way to the Church of San Nicolas Tolentinto in Sinait, a mere 23 kilometres down the Manila North Road.   If you are coming from Laoag, Sinait is the first town of Ilocos Sur.  

The facade of the church may look new but wander around the back and you'll find the old thick stone walls that have been part of the church since the 1600s.

Our main reason for stopping by Sinait Church was to pray before the  Sto. Cristo Milagroso 
who is on the main altar.  The Sto. Cristo along with another statue,  that of the Virgen 
Milagrosa  (now in Badoc Church) came all the way from Nagasaki, Japan in the late 1500s.  
It is said that during this time, Christians were being persecuted in Japan so the faithful put 
the two statues in a box and set them adrift,  perhaps praying that more hospitable people would 
find them.  The statues were found by fishermen on the shores of Sinait and Badoc and since then, have been venerated on the altars of both churches.

The distance from Sinait to Vigan is just 40 kilometres and we made it to this UNESCO World Heritage Centre just in time for lunch.  It was blazingly hot and the trees along Plaza Burgos  provided much needed shade.  Drivers patiently wait by their calesas for tourists who would like 
to see Vigan by horse drawn carriage.

Calle Crisologo is a pedestrian only avenue lined with centuries old bahay na bato that now house stores selling crafts, antiques, replicas and all sorts of souvenirs.   While there is much more to Vigan than this busy tourist spot, we did not have time to explore more of the city.   

I was not able to shop for anything but bagnet in Laoag.   I made up for it by heading straight to my abel suki in Vigan.   Manong Dante at Rowilda's sells abel in all forms --  handwoven from their own looms.  I am only too happy to do my share in helping sustain this traditional Ilokano cottage industry.  I was also happy that some of the Amigos decided that they too needed more abel in their lives and thus contributed to Rowilda's increase in daily sales.

Before piling into the Coaster for the still 400 kilometre drive home, we made sure to pass by the Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Paul.  The Cathedral was ordered built by Juan de Salcedo, founder of Vigan.  It is situated right across the Plaza that bears his name.
 The cathedral is dedicated to St. Paul and if you look closely enough, you can see his statue in the alcove above the door, portraying him at his moment of conversion, on the road to Damascus.

Built in the traditional earthquake baroque style with a pleasing creamy beige  facade, you will miss seeing the side reinforcements which are not visible  if you are looking at the Cathedral dead front and centre. 

The interiors are beautiful with off white walls and arches painted gold lining the main nave.
There are beaten silver retablos on the main altar that blend with the gold paint.  The wood and
brass communion rail has been left intact and it enhances and shows off the altar in the best possible way.

 I caught the sun setting on the Ilocos horizon from my window as we sped home from Vigan.
 It seemed like the perfect image that would mark the end of our North Luzon Camino.
Naimbag nga rabii, Ilocos!  Agkitatan to.  Good night, Ilocos!  See you again!

 NB Many thanks to Jay for the use of some of his photos and to Mayk Mariano for photos # 4 and 7.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Amigos' North Luzon Camino. Day 3 -- "Visita Iglesia" in Ilocos Norte

Day 3 was our full day to go around Ilocos Norte to visit some of her more  noteworthy churches.  Some of the Amigos had been around Ilocos before and for some, this was their first time in the province.  I hoped that the day would hold some interesting discoveries for everyone.

We woke up bright and early at Balay da Blas, a delightful B&B in Laoag City.  Originally built out of owner Sammy Blas' ancestral home, Balay has been so successful that it now includes a more modern three story hotel beside it.  We stayed in the Executive, Junior and deluxe suites in the original building where rooms are furnished with antique wooden furniture and enough personal knick knacks that make you feel like you are a guest in Sammy Blas' home.

To get a feel of the places we would go to, I hired a tour guide from Ilocos Heritage Tours.  
Michelle Jacinto,  genuine Ilocana and native of  Laoag City  regaled us with  local,  cultural and historical facts. With a little prodding, she also sang Pamulinawen and Manang Biday for us.  A real trouper indeed!
When traveling,  I  believe that having a local guide take you around is the one of the best ways to maximise your enjoyment of the place.

Our first stop was Pasuquin Bakery in Pasuquin, a few towns north of Laoag City. This is where a unique and delicious biscocho is made.  It comes in two varieties -- as a soft roll lightly flavoured with anise, and as a crunchy biscocho.  The soft roll (which keeps for just a few days)  is best eaten warm, with good butter while  the crunchy biscocho can last for several weeks and is perfect with coffee.

From the bakery, we visited the Church of St James, right by the Pasuquin town plaza.  While the church is new and not one of the heritage churches of Ilocos,  we wanted to go and say hi to our Amigo,  Santiago.

I found this statue of Santiago Matamoros inside the church, tucked away to one side.

 This larger statue of Santiago as Peregrino is more prominent, located on the right side of the main altar.  Time for us to take a photo with our Amigo!

From Pasuquin, it was a short drive to the next town, Bacarra where we gamely posed in the
shadow of the famous earthquake damaged bell tower of St. Andrew's Church, also known as
Torre Ti Bacarra.
Built in the 1700s,  the bell tower's dome has been completely damaged along with the top floor but what is left is still quite spectacular.  The surrounding area has also been landscaped to make for a more striking photo setting.  This landscaped portion around the tower was certainly not there when I first visited Bacarra many many years ago.

Like most of the churches in earthquake prone Ilocos,  St. Andrew's in Bacarra hews to the earthquake baroque style of architecture where buttresses help prop up and strengthen the nave or the main part of the church.

From Bacarra, we drove to the town of Sarrat where the church of Sta. Monica sits prettily by the banks of the Padsan River.

Built by Augustinian friars in the 1600s, Sta. Monica church has been damaged through the centuries by fires and earthquakes.  With each calamity,  the church has been reconstructed and rebuilt and while the current facade no longer conforms to what it originally looked like,  it is still one of the must see churches in Ilocos Norte.

The interiors of Sta. Monica Church feature gleaming tiles, brick walls and the longest nave of any church in Ilocos Norte.
Don't forget to look up and marvel at the ceiling,  composed of a system of wooden trusses that hold up the roof.  Brick walls with large windows allow natural light to stream into the church.

Another interesting and unique feature of Sta. Monica Church is the brick bridge that connects the convento to the church.  Picture pretty, it makes me think of Maria Clara, azoteas and secret trysts with Ibarra.

We pause and pose for a moment, in front of historic (and indestructible) Sta. Monica church in Sarrat.

From Sarrat, we followed Padsan River to the church of San Nicolas Tolentino in the municipality of San Nicolas.  This town is connected to Laoag City by the Gilbert Bridge and you pass by the church when you exit Laoag headed to Manila.  
Can you see the many flags and the coat of arms of Spain, which adorn the top of the main entrance way?

The church is named after an Italian Augustinian friar, St. Nicolas of Tolentine, who was known for his simple and pious ways. He must have been quite a favourite with the Augustinian missionaries who brought Christianity to Ilocos because they named  three parishes after him  -- in San Nicolas and Vintar, Ilocos Norte and in Sinait, Ilocos Sur.

A lovely and serene statue of the Blessed Virgin is placed by the wall,  and can be seen once you enter the church.

Our next stop after San Nicolas was the always amazing St. Augustine Church in Paoay, one of
only four churches that have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country.
Built solidly in earthquake baroque style, it sits massive and unperturbed in the middle of the rapidly (and sadly) modernising church grounds.
The church was constructed in the 1700s and has been damaged by earthquakes but rebuilt and reinforced with 24 buttresses -- the widest and the most that I ever seen in any church in the Philippines.

Delicate spirals or coils can be found on the buttresses, adding gracefulness and fluidity to these otherwise strong and mighty structures.

There were quite a number of local tourists visiting Paoay Church.  The interiors unfortunately are not as impressive as the exterior  -- I wish that when re-constructing or re-building classic structures,  those in charge try to be as faithful to the original as they possibly can.

 Paoay Church is truly awe inspiring.  I have visited all four UNESCO World Heritage churches in the Philippines and this is definitely my favourite.   The towering belfry stands apart and is as imposing and impressive as the church.  Seen together, they form one of the best examples of church architecture in the country.

 Our tour guide Michelle had designed our itinerary so that the Cathedral of St. William the Hermit in Laoag City would be our last "visita iglesia"  for the day.  The Cathedral stands out with its light coloured plastered facade and its rounded columns.  It looks a bit different from the other churches we had been to.  Alcoves on the upper level, in between shorter and more squat columns, feature statues of the patron saint and Sts. Peter and Paul.

Mass was ongoing when we arrived so I didn't want to intrude by taking too many photos.  
You get a better sense of the cathedral's expansive size when you see the thick walls and the wide and deep windows on the sides.

The church of St. William the Hermit must have occupied quite a large area when it was built.
The  bell tower, which is always located within church grounds,  is now a good two blocks away.
Retaining its original brick facade, St. William's bell tower stands several stories above the modern buildings that  surround it.  I can imagine it must have been a key look out point for Laoag in the olden days.
The November light was slowly fading as we stood outside the Cathedral of St. William the Hermit.
I was happy that we had managed to visit quite a number of Ilocos Norte's memorable  churches on Day 3 of our Northern Camino.

NB Many thanks to my husband Jay for some of the photos used in this post.