Monday, January 9, 2017

2016 -- My year in Food and Travel, Reunions and Farewells

It's more than a week into the New Year and I have yet to summon the energy to get off my ever expanding fanny and sit at the computer and write my year end "report".  The holidays have a habit
of lulling you into alternating between sleeping, eating and thinking about sleeping and eating.
But enough of the procrastination --  this dear reader,  is how my 2016 went.  
News and social media have proclaimed that 2016 was dreadful -- an annus horribilis if you will.
My own year was certainly not an exception, with some painful transitions and losses.  But it was also a year of revelations and reunions and yes more food and a bit of travel.  So here goes ... 


Weddings are happy occasions and to start 2016 off with the wedding of a favourite niece and goddaughter augured well for the rest of the year.  It was also my first time to visit the pretty and picturesque San Antonio de Padua church hidden in a corner of Silang, Cavite

Dinner with college batch mates from 40+ years (and 40 pounds) ago was unexpected and delightful.    2016 was also our Ruby Anniversary, marking 40 years of our college graduation from the Ateneo de Manila in 1976.  This dinner would be the first of a number of other mini reunions.  


Last year I discovered the quiet, calming and reflective benefits of qi gong.  I was fortunate that
just a few months into the practice,  I was able to attend a workshop with  the founder of
Sheng Zhen Qi Gong himself,  Master Li Jun Feng

After the four day workshop, Master Li took time out to join us at merienda at Milky Way.  He is truly a kind and approachable man -- embodying what he teaches which is the philosophy of unconditional love via the practice of Qi Gong.


I had never been to the very famous Palaisdaan Restaurant in Lucban and it took a visit from balikbayan friend and Amigo Ross to give me a chance to discover the delights of fresh tilapia cooked Quezon style plus the novelty of eating lunch on a floating raft.

Tilapia aside, the real palate pleaser was the sticky and sweet pilipit, made with grated kalabasa 
(squash) and covered in an addictive coco jam sauce.  

On one of our trips to Lucena, we finally made a stop at Majayjay, to see the centuries old  
St. Gregory the Great Parish Church.  Dating back to the 1600s, this is one of best preserved
examples of Spanish churches in the country. 

Do not miss going inside the church -- there is a very unique wooden pulpit that dominates the interiors, not to mention a balcony that goes all around the church's stone walls.  

Holy Week is one of the two occasions when I make time to go visit my cousins in Orani, Bataan.
Despite it being Good Friday,  fasting is never on the agenda.

However, we do make it a point to abstain from meat.  My traveling paellera and I were able to
whip up this seafood paella for lunch -- with the freshest suahe (shrimp)  and pusit (squid) bought from the Orani palengke (public market) just that morning. 

After Easter, time for another mini reunion with fellow Ateneans  to ostensibly plot out the celebrations for our Ruby Jubilarian homecoming.  However, I think we spent more time chatting, laughing and catching up then making any real plans!


April did not start well at all.  Our yellow lab Travis, surely the gentlest and most loving dog ever, had been diagnosed with bladder cancer and while we did all that we could, we had to say goodbye.
I know he will be waiting for me at the Rainbow bridge, along with his father Rebus and all the other pets that we have loved and have loved us in return.

The bright blue waters off Coron in Palawan somehow distracted me from the blue feelings over losing Travis.  Together with the Amigos, we celebrated summer with a long week-end in Coron,
my very first time to travel to this awesome part of the Philippines. 

My favourite part of the trip was discovering the achingly beautiful island of Malcapuya, a two
hour boat ride away from the main island of Busuanga.  Sadly this piece of paradise has been
sold to private investors who plan to build a luxury resort -- why can we not keep our natural treasures accessible for all to enjoy?

Back in the city, the end of April was a good time to gather batch mates and classmates from the Ateneo de Manila for a lunch to commemorate our mentor and former department chairman's 85th birthday.  Fr. Alberto V.  Ampil, SJ -- still pixie-ish, still working, still possessed of good cheer and humour -- hopefully enjoyed seeing us, his still boisterous, still rowdy ex-charges/wards/proteges.

Fr. Bert's lunch was held at Alab in UP Town Center, a stone's throw away from the Ateneo.
My food discovery of the day was the Penuneng -- dinuguan or dinardaraan as the Ilocanos call
it, encased in sausage stuffing.  The Ilocano version of morcilla or blood sausage.

To cool down from the blistering April heat, a long time foodie friend and I hied off to the Dessert Kitchen where I thought that, as befits its name,  there would be lots of cakes, cookies and all sorts of sweets on offer.

However, the Dessert Kitchen specialises in just cold concoctions -- ice creams, parfaits, shaved ice treats, cold puddings and flans -- a tall, slim sundae was good to share between two not-so sweet toothed friends.


May is Pahiyas time in Quezon, most popularly in Lucban.  It's also the worst time to visit, if you hate crowds and traffic.   I visited a few days after and while 99% of the decorations had been taken down, one house was just in the process of cleaning up so I did get my own little Pahiyas moment. 

My favourite quiet corner of Lucban is Cafe San Luis, set up in the backyard of an ancestral bahay na bato (traditional stone house).  They make a delightful margarita, most probably using the local liquor, lambanog.  A personal sized cheese pizza with the native longganisa makes this merienda a truly Lucbanin treat!

I cannot leave  Lucban without buying the local hats and  fans -- in vivid summer colours. 
They make good pasalubong for the Amigos who waste no time in modelling them for an impromptu fashion shoot.

College best buddy Po came for a visit from Toronto and it was yet another occasion for a mini
reunion at Victorino's in Quezon City one of the few places outside Ilocos where one can enjoy  genuine Ilocano cuisine. 

Aside from the Ilocano food, another draw is the  "Desserterie" of Heny Sison, conveniently housed within the restaurant.  The lemon torte is light with the right balance of tart  and sweet flavours.
The ilocano mamon or torta was dense, buttery and melted in my mouth -- it was my amazing food surprise of the day.


There is a first time for everything.  Cebu Pacific offered tickets to Fukuoka at a price no one could refuse.  It was my first time to fly on this low cost carrier and I was pleasantly surprised!  And yes, the airport is really called "FUK".

Fukuoka was an eye opener.  As Kyushu's biggest city, it is a good gateway to other parts of the island.  We enjoyed the serene temples at nearby Dazaifu.

The iris garden at Tenmangu Shrine reminded us of Monet's paintings. 

From Fukuoka,  Nagasaki was just a two hour train ride away!

We got to ride the iconic vintage trams of Nagasaki, the easiest way to go around the city.

I never in my wildest castela dreams imagined that I would one day be able to visit the place where my favourite honey cake came from.  Fukusaya Castela boasts of a heritage that dates back to the 1600s and it is my favourite omiyage from Japan.  It was a treat to visit their oldest shop in Nagasaki.

Shippoku ryori is a Nagasaki tradition and while I may not have tried a full course, this mini version at Yohira was a delicious introduction.

June is the season for my favourite flowers -- hydrangeas.  The garden at Hakozaki Shrine had thousands of these beautiful blooms in all colours, shapes, sizes and varieties.  

Thanks to local tour company Fukuoka Walks,  Jay and I were able to try our hand at cooking a few Japanese dishes, right inside the home kitchen of our Japanese cooking teacher Atsuko san.


July ushered in a reunion with favourite cousin Adeling and her whole family.  Badenhaus in Pansol is our preferred picnic place.  The large private pool fed with warm spring waters,  is soothing and relaxing.

And because Adeling was around,  we had more than enough food to feed a whole barangay!  
My paella seemed almost like an afterthought.

We enjoyed more family time in July with a long week-end at Highlands.  A view of Taal Lake is the best thing to wake up to after a deep and relaxing sleep.


Thanks to good friend Tsirol, I met Clang Garcia who runs food and culture tours.  Her outsized 
air-conditioned jeepney took us around nearby Cavite for a taste of both history and local delights.

Various provinces have their own version of quesong puti (white cheese from carabao milk).
Cavite's version is called quesillo and is milder and creamier than its Bulacan or Laguna cousin.
Paired with hot pandesal, it is typical Caviteño breakfast fare.

I do believe that the best ensaymada I have ever tried is the one I had at Baloys in Cavite City.  
It was soft, dense and slightly chewy -- the way I believe authentic ensaymada should be.  
Here is our photo with chef, master baker and proprietor,  Mr.  Tony Baloy.

While the food was outstanding, for me, the highlight of our Food Holidays' Cavite Tour 
was the visit to the Museo ng Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio in Maragondon.  It is a moving
and impressive tribute to Gat Andres and will correct any misinformation or historical inaccuracies
you may have learned about Bonifacio's role in the revolution.

The Caviteños are the proud inventors of Pansit Choco or pancit cooked with squid ink that turns the thin noodles into a deep dark delicious black.  Garnished with slivers of green kamias, it was my last bite of Cavite on this entertaining, educational and yes -- extremely stomach-filling tour.

August is National History Month so after that edifying Cavite Tour, I followed it up with a visit
to the San Agustin Museum with good friend, the Kastila.

While the museum is  the country's prime source of colonial ecclesiastical art, the 16th century church cloisters where the collection is housed is in itself a true architectural masterpiece. 

The Museum has been lovingly restored and refurbished in the last three years. Donations  from 
local collectors have also significantly boosted and added to the richness of the Museum's collection.
It is not as well promoted as it should be which is a shame as more Filipinos should really go and see it. 


To promote local travel and get back to local culinary traditions is a most worthwhile advocacy.
CHOPs (Culinary Historians of the Philippines) tries to do just that.  They conduct tours around
the different provinces,  blending history, culture and food as seamlessly as they can.
Jay, lawyer friend Trisha and I joined their Lipa Tour aptly called "Lasa at Pananampalataya sa Lipa".

The big surprise awaiting tour participants was the presence of Chef Myrna Segismundo -- one 
of the country's most respected and beloved culinary personalities who also just happens to be a 
proud Batangueña. 

Chef Myrna demonstrated her family's recipe for Batangas style Adobo which we were all able to enjoy during lunch.  

From adobo to kapeng Barako -- another Batangas original.  The tour brought us to Cafe de Lipa, exporter of Batangas grown coffee to all parts of the globe.  The owners themselves treated to a presentation on coffee,  the various beans that make a cup and how to best enjoy the local brew.

From Cafe de Lipa, it was a short drive to the San Sebastian Cathedral.  My mother used to work in Lipa in the 1980s and lived there for many years.  I was happy to once again visit the church -- the interiors seemed even grander than before.

Every time I pass through Batangas,  I would always see the ubiquitous sign for "Lomi".  
On this tour I finally got to taste it.  Lipa's lomi was thick, rich and loaded with quekiam  (chinese sausage) and lechon kawali (fried pork belly).  It was a lomi-luscious way to end this Lipa tour.

One of the perks of being retired is that you can finally up and go to places you had always wanted to see but never had the time to. In September, I visited Pinto Museum and Art Gallery in Antipolo with Raki, a long time friend and kindred spirit.    

Museum cafes are usually tasteful and complementary to the overall art experience.  Pinto's 
in-house coffee shop was no exception.  If only the traffic to Antipolo was not so bad, I would  
be a regular at  Cafe Tan-aw, notable for its delicious thin crust pizzas using local ingredients like quesong puti and longganisa and even bagnet.


I was back in Antipolo in October but this time at the Crescent Moon Cafe.  I wasn't there to eat lunch though but to take a basic lesson in craft beer making.

Master Brewer James of Santiago Brewery and Malt House was a passionate and generous teacher,
sharing with us the how-to's of craft beer brewing.

Patience and more patience, James counselled us.  Home beer brewing is not that difficult but takes time.   I hope that Jay and I can brew our own beers sometime in the not so distant future.

October brought sadness to us.  Our last remaining labrador passed away.  I hoped that we could spend a year or two more with him but it was not to be.   Eternally a puppy at heart, Nero was always the rambunctious, mischievous and naughty one, as compared to his placid and peaceful twin, Travis.   He missed his 13th birthday by just a few weeks and even as I write this, I miss him dearly.

I had been going to Lucena frequently this 2016 -- at least once a month.  Lucena is busy with tricycles and jeeps spewing odorous fumes but very early in the morning, the streets are almost deserted and it is the best time of the day to take a walk.  My stroll  ultimately leads me to Gemini, 
a local bakery that still turns out traditional, old time breads and pastries.

Gemini's escaparate is full of breads that I grew up eating -- kababayan, pianono, kalihim,
monay, bonete, pan de coco, spanish bread  ... I always end up buying more that I can eat.

Jay's favourite is Gemini's ensaymada -- made the old fashioned way.   It's soft with a thin crust that yields delightfully when you tear off a bite.  Topped with margarine and dusted with sugar, it's ensaymada as I remember it to be.   At five pesos each, you cannot have a better or cheaper breakfast!


Because I had been going to Lucena regularly this year, I was able to cook meals for my 95 year old mother-in-law.  She always seemed to enjoy whatever it was that I would dish up but I remember she had a special smile when I served her my paella.  In November,  my mother in law left us and I am somehow comforted by the thought that perhaps in my own small way, my cooking had made her happy.


This December,  I marked a special milestone by turning 60.  It's trite but true, time does fly.  
To celebrate, I had a reunion with these girls who have been my friends for more than 40 years.
We drove to Highlands --  and enjoyed hours of eating, reminiscing and then eating some more.  

I decided to go away for the week-end of my birthday.  First up was to attend morning mass at 
Our Lady of Manaoag in Pangasinan.  

After mass, our main destination was the UNESCO World Heritage site of  Vigan.  The old world charm and atmosphere would be most appropriate for someone who has finally realised she has officially  turned  "old".

Vigan by night is magical -- the streetlights transform the cobblestone street into a scene straight out of the 1800s.  I could almost see the night watchman or sereno doing his rounds.

Because it was nearing the Christmas season, the fountain at the plaza had been all decked out with a light and sound show.  Who needs fireworks when you have dancing water and lights?

Apres-show, time for a drink and a bite to eat.  Dinakdakan goes particularly well with a margarita

After that very pleasant Vigan birthday getaway, it was reunion time with a college classmate who 
we had not seen since graduation -- yes, 40 years ago!  To welcome Lulu back,  Ditas and I  took her on the inimitable Binondo Wok tour.  Catching up over dim sum and noodles was a yummy way to 
roll back the years. 

We all raved about and enjoyed this salted egg custard bun.  Slightly salty, slightly sweet,  soft and creamy. I think it's the best addition to the everything-with-salted-egg food fad.  Long may it exist!

I don't know how I managed to squeeze in three days for my annual silent retreat but I'm glad I did.

My very large corner room at the Sacred Heart Novitiate had a private balcony where I could sit 
and look out on this very peaceful setting.  As in last year, I was sad to leave this sanctuary after three days. 

Time for the annual family Christmas trip!  This year, we flew to Fukuoka -- Jay and I had been so impressed by our first visit in June, we knew everyone else would enjoy it too.

We did a day tour to Nagasaki once again, this time visiting places we missed seeing last June.
I'm glad I visited the Shrine for the 26 Martyrs where our very own San Lorenzo Ruiz is honoured
by a statue in the garden.

I had really wanted to see the Megane or Spectacles Bridge -- Japan's oldest stone bridge.  I finally got it done on this trip.  Nagasaki has several stone bridges but this must be the most photographed 
of them all.

Our excellent Tours by Locals guide Miyuki san brought us to her own favourite lunch place.  Primrose may be a very proper english word but the menu serves up a local specialty.
This is a plate of toruku rice or turkish rice invented in Nagasaki that marries traditional and foreign tastes on a plate.  You have to taste it to believe how surprisingly good it is.

Meandering along Temple Walk in Nagasaki, I met this extremely fat and friendly temple cat and almost spirited it away in my duffle bag.

A couple of days after our Nagasaki visit, we hopped on a train for Kumamoto to see the famous castle.  It had been extensively damaged during last year's earthquake and for a while, I was debating whether to go or not.  I am glad we did because Kumamoto-jo despite the destruction is a spectacular sight.  I can only pray that each and every fallen stone and board is restored in its proper place.

Before we left Kumamoto, we had to have the local specialty -- horse meat.  A restaurant near the castle offered a lunch set of noodles with chunks of soft horse meat, bits of corn, carrots and cabbage in a slightly thick gravy.  Oishii desu yo!

It definitely went well with a tall glass of Suntory beer! Kampai!

And now, to end this post on a positive and cheerful note --  life has been extremely good to me and my family. 
We lived in "interesting times" in 2016,  a year that brought challenges and changes and 
2017 may bring more even more difficulties and uncertainties.   
But let's welcome it with a wide smile and fervent hopes that the new year would bring everyone good health, happiness and more amazing discoveries and journeys.

Eat, live and travel on!


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