Growing up, weekends meant going on a road trip to camp out at my Auntie Sonya’s farm in Tagaytay. It would be a sweaty day of reveling in the outdoors, playing taguan with my cousins, and harvesting food crops around her property. Our day would be punctuated by homecooked meals prepared by her cook, Gina, who is Bisaya and makes the most delicious dishes with gata. At night, we would all gather around a bonfire and tell stories over grilled corn. We would sleep under the stars and wake up to roosters crowing right outside our tents.
Back then, it wasn’t Sonya’s Garden yet—it was simply a small piece of land in Alfonso where my aunt would indulge us all in her love for gardening and the desire to go back to a simpler, slower life. It’s the same philosophy that would fuel the birth of the garden restaurant that started it all (which turns 20 next year!), as well as the bed and breakfast cottages she built shortly after. And when the Panaderia opened some ten years ago, it was to fulfill the same type of longing: simple, nostalgic comfort food that takes us all back.
Her Spanish Bread has been, hands down, the most popular offering. I know people who would drive all the way from Manila to hoard a few bags of these! For me, it has managed to create the definitive experience of Spanish bread. At about 5 to 6 inches long, it’s not airy and hollow like others of its kind. The rolled dough is pillowy soft, but still dense enough to hold a generous dollop of creamy butter and sugar. By itself at room temperature it’s pretty good, but I like it best toasted, when the outside turns to a crisp while the filling is nice and melted… That, to me, tastes like a warm hug.
Then there’s the Cheese Hopia, which next to her Spanish bread, has earned a cult following of its own. Probably because there’s simply nothing like it. In fact, whenever this is baking in the Panaderia, there’s no mistaking it for anything else. It has the kind of arresting cheesy aroma that just makes its presence known. It smells heavenly.
These pretty little round mounds are made with a flaky crust that gently chips away when bitten into, revealing a bed of rich, sweet Parmesan cheese underneath. If you happen to be there when they’re taking them out of the oven, consider yourself lucky, that’s the perfect time to pick up a piece and enjoy it in all its fresh baked glory. To enjoy at home, I recommend gently toasting it in the oven for two to three minutes, or just long enough until you can see a nice brown char on the cheese on top. Here’s a tip: if you can get your hands on some thick, hot tsokolate to go with, this is the kind of thing that’s plain perfect for dunking.
When you ask the Panaderia staff what other baked goods get a lot of traction, they will point you in the direction of their Pan de Coco, packed in pieces of 10. Unassuming as it may appear, this humble treat is the kind that serves up simple flavors of home. Buttery grated coconut and sugar are ensconced in pockets of dough, like a mildly sweet dinner roll with a sweet surprise. There’s a bit of a soft crunch when you get a mouthful of the filling, like when you chew on a macaroon. It’s just sweet enough for you to enjoy it with coffee, so you can let the sweet and bitter flavors play together.
Today, Sonya’s Garden has grown into a full-blown wellness empire. Her quaint English garden has quadrupled in size, which apart from the restaurant, now houses a country bed and breakfast, a spa, little shops, plus several wedding venues woven throughout the property. The Panaderia is just one of its luscious secrets. There’s plenty more to discover.
The Panaderia is at Sonya’s Garden, Barangay Buck Estate, Alfonso, Cavite.