Thursday, December 29, 2016

The enduring heritage of Vigan's burnay pottery

After a quick "immersion" into how inabel, the traditional ilocano cloth is woven, it was time to explore yet another part of Vigan's ancestral traditions  -- the centuries old craft of making burnay pottery.

First things first -- I asked the helpful hotel staff to hire a calesa that would take me to the city's 
few remaining camarin or paburnayan.   Within a few minutes my chariot, driven by a smiling 
Mang Adolfo was clip clopping down the street.

We headed towards Calle Gomez where most of the pagburnayan are.  There are two large factories, just a few meters away from each other -- Ruby's and RG Pottery.  
There were too many tourists crowded around Ruby's souvenir stalls so I left and headed off towards the quieter place across the street.  
RG Pottery has an expansive yard shaded by large trees.   No one seemed to be around so I walked towards the back where the kilns and pottery wheels are.

When you visit the pagburnayan, you are invited and encouraged to try your hand at the pottery 
wheel.  Guided by the potter, you are given a small lump of clay so that you can make  a small burnay jar.  
Of course the lump of clay ends out looking exactly like that -- a small lump masquerading as a pot or jar.   It  certainly makes you realise that pottery making is no easy task. 
Two people are needed to run the rather large stone wheel -- one to spin it continually with 
his foot and the other to form the clay into a work of art.

I wandered around the neat and clean camarin.  Jars stood neatly on one end,  these have gone 
through the huge kilns and are being cooled down.  

There are more jars stacked by the walls.  Burnay pottery are unglazed and are characterised by their dark colour.  The colour comes from  the clay that is used which can only be found in Vigan.  
Burnay jars are much heavier than other types of clay jars and are also very durable.  Notice how they are piled up one on top of the other without worry of breakage.

The tradition of burnay dates back to pre-Spanish times.  Jars were used as containers for water, 
salt, bagoong (fermented fish sauce) and even basi (a native wine).    Today, RG Pottery sells 
burnay water containers that come fitted with a spigot -- during our lola's times, you would probably scoop out the water using a small dipper.

RG Pottery has a store right outside the factory.  There are all kinds of jars in various shapes and sizes.  I was definitely going to buy at least one as a souvenir of my visit to the pagburnayan.

The owner of RG Pottery himself came out to attend to me.  This is Mang Aster who told me that 
this pagburnayan was started by his great grandfather.  He was proud of his role in helping sustain 
this  important part of Vigan's cultural heritage.

Here are the two burnay jars that I bought from RG Pottery.  Heeding  Mang Aster's advice, 
I bought a salt container  and a pretty decorative jar that would look good in the garden.


My burnay salt jar has been put to work in the kitchen.  Mang Aster promised me that the burnay would protect the salt from any moisture.   I use a platito to cover the top,  just as lola probably did!

Friday, December 16, 2016

Rowilda's Handloom Weaving -- keeping the colourful vibrant art of inabel alive

Shall I tell you a dark little secret of mine?  I am a hoarder.  When I like something, I tend to go out and buy indecent quantities of it.
Now there are two things I specifically can't stop buying  -- books (both real and virtual) and that Ilocano handwoven cloth called inabel
If you come to my house, you will see my books all over the place -- on shelves, tables, on chairs and on benches.  But you won't see my hoard of inabel -- blankets, linens, bedcovers, shawls, even fabric for dresses that may never be made. I keep them stashed inside large plastic bins hidden under the beds.  

This inabel addiction is the result of years and years of annual road trips to Ilocos.  On this last trip,
I decided that to truly worship at the feet of inabel, I needed to go and take a look at how this centuries old cloth is woven and made.
My suki in Vigan City, Mang Dante at Rowilda's along Crisologo Street very kindly invited me to
go and visit their looms at their factory in Camangaan, a barangay about 10 minutes away from the centre of town.   Jay and I found a tricycle that took us there.

Barangay Camangaan must be the centre of inabel weaving in Vigan as we passed a few other places before we finally found Rowilda's.  We were met by a kind and gracious lady,  Manang Vangie who very gladly took us on a tour of their factory.

Rowilda's looms are on the ground floor of the owner's  house.  Crates and sacks of thread are all over the place.  The process of weaving starts in this corner where you see wooden rods hanging from the ceiling.  Manang Vangie explained how different coloured threads are hung from these rods then looped together in colour patterns for the weavers to use.

From the rods, these brightly colored skeins of thread are created.  The colour pattern will make  simple but attractive designs used mostly in  linens like napkins and table runners.

Inabel is purely handwoven.  The looms are operated using foot pedals that the weaver pushes on to weave the fabric.  It's a time consuming process -- Manang Vangie said  that an expert and experienced weaver can finish from 5 to 10  meters a day using a simple design.
More complicated and traditional patterns take much longer and sometimes a whole day's work will yield just a few meters.

Perhaps it was merienda time when we visited because most of the weavers were not at their looms.  However we did see the different projects that they were working on.

Manang Vangie said they were rushing orders for a trade fair that would be held in Manila.  Quite a number of finished table runners were just waiting to be wrapped.  Do you see that big loom in the background?  That is used to weave wide and large pieces like blankets and bedcovers.  

I asked Manang Vangie about the future of the inabel industry.  She pointed out that nowadays 
young people are no longer interested in learning to weave inabel -- finding the process too tedious and time consuming.  I suppose everyone wants to work in the big city instead.
Later on, my suki Mang Dante would also mention that he believed that technology like phones, tablets and computers  have contributed to the decline in young people taking up weaving.  Who wants to sit at a loom the whole day when you can be playing on your PS4?

It was an educational and entertaining visit to Rowilda's factory.
 Here's a photo of his brother, Mang Dominic Panela, owner  of Rowilda's along with his wife
and Manang Vangie.   Thank you for showing me the art of inabel weaving!


This lovely painting of a weaver at her loom was hanging in a corner at Rowilda's .  
Mang Dante and Mang Dominic both mentioned that it was their mother who taught them how 
to weave.  
She has been weaving inabel all her life and would still be doing it now at 92,  if not for a fall a 
few months ago that has now kept her at home.  
I wonder if she is the woman in the painting -- weaving and painstakingly creating her inabel masterpieces.  

Thursday, December 15, 2016

I'd Queue for You -- Sinanglaw at 1st Sinanglaoan, Vigan City

Dinakdakan, insarabasab, poqui poqui, dinardaraan, igado, pakbet, bagnet, empanada, papaitan  --
I think I've pretty much run the gamut (oh yes, and let's not forget gamet!) of  dishes from Region 1. All delicious, all homegrown, all uniquely Ilocano.  
But I had yet to try sinanglaw -- a beef soup dish essentially using economical cuts of beef plus beef innards that has its beginnings and roots in Vigan City.

On this last trip, the Ilocano food gods were specially kind.  Vigan's best sinanglawan was located right smack in front of Veneto de Vigan, our hotel for the week-end.  
Appropriately named 1st Sinanglaoan, this makeshift eatery is located  inside the compound of the Vigan Post Office. 
A long queue could be observed each morning and the hotel staff told me that if I wanted to grab a bite, I should go very early for the place was open only from 6 until all the sinanglaw ran out, usually well before lunch time.

There is an alarm implanted in my brain that screams "Wake up for food!"!
Next morning, I showed up bright and early at a little past 6 but found myself fifth in line.
I was quite surprised to see that most of the tables were occupied and people were happily slurping away. 
Two ladies were at the front line -- manning the large constantly simmering kalderos of boiled meats -- one for the laman made up of the cheaper cuts of beef  and the other for the  laman loob (offal).
Sinanglaw is head to tail eating, Ilocano style -- every unwanted bit of the cow is used so nothing is wasted and the animal does not give up its life in vain. 

This kaldero station is where you  order your bowl of sinanglaw.  The friendly hotel staff
had told me to ask for both laman and tripilya or tripe.  Unfortunately there was no tripe that
morning but the kind Manang told me she had something better.

She picked out a huge chunk of puso or beef heart.  Along with a slab of laman which was actually 
beef cheeks (my old and dear friend carrillera)  my bowl had chunks of coagulated beef blood and bits and pieces of kidneys, liver and pancreas.  Manang put in two strips of beef skin "para matikman mo" she said. 
Since I had both laman and laman loob,  this counted as a double order.  A regular order is just of either one. 

Here's helpful Manang with my bowl.  Soup refills are de rigueur and on the house. 

Now that I had my bowl,  I loaded it on a tray and lined up for my plate of steaming hot, freshly cooked rice.  This assembly line works very efficiently!  Right beside the rice is the "cashier" who looks over your order and tells you how much you owe.  

My double order of sinanglaw, (single) rice and bottled water cost me all of P125.   Such a great bargain for all this food.  
I took a first sip of the broth -- it was light yet you could taste the hearty beef flavour.  
I was expecting it to taste like bulalo but sinanglaw has a faint but unmistakeable tartness which brought to mind the Ilonggo kansi.  I later found out from Manang that kamias is what adds the
sour to sinanglaw.
This lingering tart note makes the broth quite refreshing and keeps it from overwhelming your mouth with all that cow-iness.  I immediately loved it!  It reminded me of sinigang and paksiw,  two dishes that rank high on my list of "Food I Could Eat Everyday".  

The Manangs at the sinanglawan were watching me and quickly caught on that they had a "newbie"
on their hands.  
They swooped down on me before I committed the ultimate mistake of eating my sinanglaw the wrong way. 
I was not aware that there is a ritual that involves specific sauces and condiments that are essential
to savoring sinanglaw
One is sukang Iloko made extra hot with siling labuyo (bird's eye chili) which is used as sawsawan 
or dipping sauce.  The other must-have is a dark olive green sauce made of bile called pespes.
Bottles of these sauces are on each table but the very nice Manang even got me a new bottle of pespes, one that was quite warm to the touch.   Oooh, very freshly harvested bile!  Just what I needed
to kickstart my day.
Raw sliced onions are the third condiment in the sinanglaw triumvirate but I drew the line at that.  

The sukang Iloko is for dipping but the pespes or bile sauce is mixed in with the broth. 
I was told to use a tablespoon at first then add more to suit my taste.  The pespes turned the soup a little bit darker and added a depth of flavour that Manang assured me is the true taste of Vigan sinanglaw.  I was afraid that bile would turn the soup too bitter but it blended and enhanced all the complex flavours of boiled offal and meat. 

Having given an all thumbs up to the broth, it was time to try the various cuts of meat in my bowl.
Vegetarians -- look away please!  
See those two large blocks of meat?  The one with more fat attached is the beef heart.  The other piece is beef cheeks.  The dark brown squares are coagulated beef blood.  This was a delicious discovery  as the blood had no mineral-ly taste at all.  Manang said that before cooking,  they  
season the blood which accounts for its delicate flavour.
My first slice was from the rather large slab of beef heart.  The heart was solid and thick and looked like it would be tough (I was prepared to be chewing like a cow) but the knife cut through easily.  How did it taste?  Absolutely divine! 
The texture was smooth (this was certainly a tender-hearted cow) and while it didn't exactly melt in the mouth, it was surprisingly easy to chew.  

Here's a close up of my first slice of the beef heart.  Can you see those little holes -- they must be 
the arteries of the heart.   It didn't seem blocked to me so it must have been a healthy cow.  However,  I wasn't too sure about myself, after ingesting all that protein!

Sinanglaw uses mostly meat from the cow's face so if you ask for laman, chances are you'll be given beef cheeks or carrillera.   These are economical but are generally a  tough cut so you need to cook them for a long time.  I cook beef cheeks in red wine until it's fork tender and when soft, it almost has the taste and texture of lengua or beef tongue,  which costs a whole lot more. 
My generous piece of carrillera must have been tenderised over a long, slow fire since the wee hours of the morning.

Here are the  Manangs who were so friendly and took me under their wing ... showing me how 
to  best eat and enjoy my first ever bowl of sinanglaw.  I shall definitely visit them again next time I am in Vigan.

No dawdling at the table though -- the line had become much longer and I had to regretfully say good bye to my new friends.  It was not even 7 a.m. and the crowd, composed mostly of locals with a smattering of tourists,  had reached all the way to the gate of the compound.  Somebody else needed my seat!

One last look at the source of the city's best sinanglaw.  It's impossible to miss 1st Sinanglaoan, just head straight for the Vigan City Post Office along Bonifacio Street.  


As I sauntered back to the hotel, the guard saw me and asked how I liked sinanglaw.  Very much, 
I said.  He told me that he too is a fan but one time when he had it every day for almost a week, "sumakit ang batok at tuhod ko talaga, ma'm!" ("my neck and knees hurt so much!")  
So hypertensive and uric acid sufferers, you have been warned!


Friday, December 9, 2016

Hidden in plain sight -- Cosina Ilocana at Cordillera Inn, Vigan City

We just came back from a long week-end in Vigan City, a place I had specifically chosen to celebrate a milestone -- turning 60!  Where best to celebrate my official status as an "antique" than in a place 
that just reeks of antiquity?

Cobblestoned Calle Crisologo is Vigan's Main Street.  Stretching for about 400 meters, it is lined 
on both sides with immense, gorgeous, ancestral stone houses -- the famous "bahay na bato".   
While you can find these residences in various old towns and cities,  it is in Vigan where so many 
of them are clustered together -- nearly all of them prime specimens of this architectural style that dates back to Spanish colonial times.
These "bahay na bato", most of them remarkably well preserved, maintained and still in use, are a major reason for Vigan's having achieved its UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

One of the older hotels in Vigan is Cordillera Inn along Calle Crisologo.  The building dates back to1880s.  It was converted to a basic hotel but has recently been spruced up and renovated again a few years ago.  

The hotel has two dining rooms - the one on the ground floor is called Cosina Ilocana and has authentic Ilocano cuisine with an honest, home cooked taste.     
Even if the hotel is right along Calle Crisologo, not too many tourists wander in to have a meal.  Which is such a shame since this is a first rate local restaurant, so much better than the more popular ones down the street.   

It may be December but it is a warm December noon.  Cosina Ilocana's San Miguel beer is 
thankfully and blissfully ice cold.

Poqui poqui, that Ilocano staple of roasted eggplant sautéed soft scrambled with egg, tomatoes and onions is one of my favourites.  You can eat it as a side dish or a light main course.  Peeking at the top is our only non- Ilocano order of Fish Croquettes which was fresh and tasty (did I detect a hint of tinapa flakes?). 

One cannot go to Ilocos and shy away from bagnet.  Systolic and diastolic be damned!
Bagnet is accompanied by a platito of  Kamatis, Bagoong and Lasona (shallots) also called KBL.  Since we were shortening our life spans anyway, we decided to go whole hog 
and  ordered Sisig na Bagnet.  This is bagnet,  chopped, quick-fried with chilies and onions and 
served on a  hot sizzling plate.  A fresh egg yolk on top of it all is the coup de cholesterol!  

Let the clean and empty serving plates tell the story.  Cosina Ilocana is certified G.I  ... 
Genuinely Ilocano.   I could just imagine Manang, lovingly cooking the dishes in the kitchen.

Next time you're wandering around Calle Crisologo, step into the gracious and elegant lobby of the Cordillera Inn.  The true flavours of Ilocano cuisine await you at Cosina Ilocana.  
Naimbag a Pascua!

Bistro Candon -- Pizza, Ilocano-fied

Candon City is a populous, progressive city in Ilocos Sur.  The national highway cuts through
the centre of town -- it winds through the church, the munisipio, the many business and commercial establishments ....  traffic always slows down to a crawl every time we pass through Candon.

Slow moving traffic is actually a blessing because you can get off the stream of cars and buses and turn into the Four Brothers Compound (turn right if you're coming from Manila and left if you're coming from Vigan). 
While there is a supermarket and even a wholesale mart -- the real object of your pit stop is a meal 
at Bistro Candon. This in my opinion, is one of the Top 5 places to eat in Northern Luzon.   

We arrived mid afternoon on our way to spend a long week-end in Vigan.  The restaurant was
nearly empty and the cool air-conditioned interiors were a welcome respite from the warm Ilocos sun.

Bistro Candon was opened in the late 1990s by native son,  Swiss and CIA trained chef Nick Rodriguez.  Much has been written about both Chef Nick and the Bistro since that time and 
the restaurant is highly rated on food and travel sites.  

A giant Christmas tree stands in one corner, decorated with wreaths, candy canes, stars ... all made out of bread!  Even the star at the very top made of a flatbread that looks crisp enough to eat.

There is a chiller with small individual cakes and other desserts.  I later found out that Bistro Candon's Brazo de Mercedes is one of the restaurant's specialties. They are probably the ones in the long white boxes.   Note to self: try it on my next visit.  

Bistro Candon serves a blend of Filipino, western (Kansas Ribs seemed quite interesting) and of course Ilocano dishes.  The chef's recommendations include this appetiser called Lechon Baka Pockets.   Tender strips of lean roast beef are generously stuffed in pita bread.  The beef was tender, moist and was complemented perfectly by the light and creamy sauce.   

There is a slew of Ilocano must-haves  on the menu -- I was sorely tempted to try the "Deliciously 
Different Bagnet", the sinanglao and the pakbet but since it was merienda time,  we decided to 
order the  pizzas -- in unique Ilocano flavours.  
This is  Bagnet on Poqui Poqui pizza. The pizza crust is ultra thin -- crisp yet with a slight chewy texture.  
Instead of tomato sauce, the base  is Poqui Poqui -- roasted eggplant sautéed with eggs, onions and tomatoes.  So many textures and tastes in one bite -- crunchy,  deep fried pork-y goodness of bagnet mixed with the smoky,  soft mouthfeel of poqui poqui!

We also ordered the Sunny Vigan Longganisa Pizza.  I love the fact that the Ilocano pizzas do not use  tomato sauce or paste.  The  local ingredients are given star billing and made to really shine.  The garlicky, spirited flavour of Ilocano longganisa is what you really taste with every bite.  

The  pizza has a surprise waiting for your tastebuds.  A perfectly cooked egg yolk not too runny, not too hard -- just the way I like it --  is hidden at the tip of each pizza slice.  It explodes in egg-y goodness all over my mouth.  Longganisa and egg are made for each other and are faultlessly paired in Bistro Candon's appropriately named Sunny Vigan Longganisa pizza.  

For my second slice, I ate the pizza starting from the crust -- making my way down to the egg yolk at the tip.  Keeping the best bite for the last.  

Bistro Candon's pizzas aren't just good -- they are distinctively delectable!  Food this good is really meant to be shared -- with companions on the table and with you,  my gentle readers who have stumbled on this post.  Next time you pass through Candon City, you know where to make a stop!


Chef Nick Rodriguez was quietly having a late meal at the table behind us.   I had to keep all my impulses in control to stop myself from going to his table and  "fangirling" all over him.  
I have so much admiration and respect for his passion for Ilocano flavours and ingredients  -- he is both culinary traditionalist and innovator!  
Thank you Chef Nick for sharing your good food with all of us.   Dios ti agngina!

NB Thank you to my son Gani for two of the photos in this post!