The onset of Holy Week is the go signal for a mass exodus from Manila. Millions leave this metropolis in exchange for beaches, hot sun, and their vacation homes. I am one of the few who prefer to stay behind, and Manila is mine, all mine. Ah, glory!
I actually am way ahead of the maddening crowd, having taken a road trip to Laguna a few days ago upon the urging of my sisters, one of whom has even printed out a detailed five-page guide. Good thing she does, because we are desperately reliant on the maps and directions. “My god, my god, this thing is not to scale!” my exasperated soon-to-be brother in law, and our navigator, Vinnie exclaims. “One inch on the map is like, so far in reality!”
How A Buko Pie Is Made
But we enjoy the hour-long ride, pointing out various campaign posters for the upcoming May elections and musing on which candidates have our vote. Colette’s Buko Pie at Pasalubong in San Pablo City, Laguna is our first stop. Colette’s is an institution, as far as native sweets and buko pies are concerned. Their stores are dotted all across Luzon, especially in tourist-heavy places like Tagaytay where every few hundred meters boasts of a Colette’s. But San Pablo City is Colette’s headquarters and I’m excited to be here. This is their main branch, where in 1989, Colette’s buko pie business began, maximizing the abundance of coconuts in Laguna. Though there were already several stores selling the same product in the province, Colette’s would be the first in San Pablo City.
I have to get special permission to take photos inside the commissary. Dong, the supervisor, is a friendly man who is our tour guide for the few minutes we’re there. The space is about as large as other professional bakeries I’ve seen. Subdivided into three, there’s a room for the hacking open of the bukos and scraping out the meat; a place for mixing and rolling of the pie crusts; and a section for filling the pies, making the lattice crusts, and packaging.
You can see from the pale color of the dough that the crusts are made primarily from shortening. Of course butter would tint it a muted yellow and impart its unique flavor, but shortening is sufficient for flakiness as well as to cut costs. Plus, nothing can beat the old fashioned style of pie crusts made from shortening.
Each crust is roughly nine inches in diameter. The dough is divided into those that are for the lattice crusts (seen in foreground), and those that are made for a peek-a-boo top crust. I especially like the nifty, steel flat plate used to make it. It certainly beats cutting out those little squares one by one with a cookie cutter, which is what I do.
Each buko pie consists of a custard filling which comes out of a large spout, and is interspersed with layers of succulent buko meat. A top crust is then added on. Already, my mouth is beginning to water and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into a slice. It’s all I can do to restrain myself from grabbing one of the pies that are being packaged and wolfing it down.
It’s neither hot nor cool inside the commissary, but what surprises me is how there’s no smell of pie in the air. Buko doesn’t really emit an aroma when it bakes, and I should know, having baked one myself just recently. I’m aware that some of you reading this post will be appalled at how the bakers are using their bare hands to handle the pies. Their explanation for that is the heat of the oven is so hot that it will kill all the germs. At least they’re wearing hairnets. I can tell you more alarming stories of things I’ve seen in other kitchens, so relax a bit, won’t you. Besides, I don’t know anyone who’s ever gotten sick from eating a Colette’s buko pie.
Streusel is a crumbly topping made from butter, flour, sugar, and sometimes spices. I don’t detect any in this one however, just the goodness of butter and sugar. The pie itself is just minutes out of the oven. Still warm, the custard oozes into my mouth with enough bite coming from the crust and lush buko meat. Speckles of sugar dance on my tongue, while stray crumbs of crust stick to my lips. This is a pie that must be eaten sans fork and saucer. All you need are your fingers and gaping maw. Damn good pie!
In San Pablo’s Casa
As corporate people, or what my former officemate used to call, “them corpy types,” my sister and brother in law are always looking for out of town places to hold seminars and planning sessions. So it was upon their suggestion that we look at Casa San Pablo, a country inn owned by Boots and An Alcantara. Modeled upon dilettantish and multifarious works of art, every room has its own theme ”“ hot cars, memories, etc. ”“ and lots of charm with bunk beds and lofts. Pine trees dot the sprawling landscape but what I particularly like are the hammocks arranged haphazardly on the lawn, excellent for plopping yourself in after a heavy meal.
Kusina Salud, sort of
This is the home of designer Patis Tesoro. A verdant environment decorated with bric-a-brac ”“ Patis herself says, “I’m not Zen. I never throw anything away,” ”“ her country home is a study of styles and antitheses. A bright room gives way to a more dim dining room. Tucked away, it looks out onto the kitchen, divided only by glass. Today is Sunday and the restaurant is only serving a buffet (P395++/head) and a la carte will be served only at dinner. Immediately, my hopes are dashed because I’ve heard so much about Kusina Salud chef Pol Poblador, and his self-described “Pinoy classics updated.” I decide to forego the buffet that includes dishes like Vietnamese-style salad with calamares fritos, chicken binakol, deep fried fish fillets, and organic white rice. It doesn’t appeal to me, and while I’m disappointed, it only fuels my resolution to come back here again.
Quezon is a sanctuary for artists who find the tranquility enervating, a place to really get their creative juices flowing. Tiaong, Quezon is where master potter Ugu Bigyan finds his home and workplace ”“ a haven of little huts connected by paved paths and bathed in a garden of green. You can opt to have a meal here (I hear they serve great suman), but you have to reserve in advance. Since we didn’t, we content ourselves with looking through his work for sale — bowls, plates, cups, and lots of other decorative pieces. Aside from cookbooks, it’s plateware and things for the kitchen that get my heart racing. I could’ve spent a small fortune in there but luckily came away with just two cups and a plate.
Driving through the countryside in the Philippines usually consists of one long main road that’ll get you into the next province and plenty of little alleys that lead farther into town. But it’s what I see outside the window as the car zips by that matters the most to me. There are plenty of sari-sari stores, bakeries, markets, carinderias, and those stalls unique to a particular province. In Laguna, we pass by a roadside fruit stand selling lambanog (coconut wine), vinegar, and some of the largest chico, also tsiko (sapodillas) I’ve ever seen. Brown in color, it has an almost papery, rough skin. Its fruit is mushy, with a sweet yet gritty texture, and needs to be scooped out. I peel and eat it like an apple. That day, the large chico is being sold for P55/kilo.
As we drive farther on, the afternoon sun blazes through the windows. Spare pieces of clothing and bags of chips are used to keep the sun’s harshness at bay. It’s siesta time. I have trouble sleeping in any kind of moving vehicle ”“ I once stayed awake during a 13-hour flight ”“ so I keep busy with my 4-year old nephew. We talk about the things that we see outside the window.
Then, as the car stops in traffic, I spy this little stand selling aluminum cookware. The wares glitter in the afternoon sunshine. I roll my window down to take a picture. The stall keeper, witnessing what I’ve just done, shoots me a quizzical look. As the car pulls away, my nephew asks me, “Why did you take a photo, Tita Lori?” “To remember what I’ve seen today,” I reply, ruffling his hair. Such curiosity and wonder these young ones possess, something I always hope to have myself. I just wish that there’d been more food on this trip, though.
Establishments’ addresses to follow.