Originally posted on September 18, 2012
WAS up in Baguio with my husband Raff last September for the 9th Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Weekend put together by the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Baguio (HRAB) headed by Baguio Country Club general manager Anthony de Leon. Chef Myrna Segismundo of ABS-CBN’s corporate dining facility Restaurant 9501 had invited the two of us to join the group of chefs and media and judge in the annual culinary competitions that serve as an elimination or the semi-final round in the Northern region for the National Food Showdown scheduled at the World Trade Center on September 21 and 22 this year. Raff and I had been part of the judging team before, I believe it was way back in 2007 or 2008, and even then we had a lot of fun, so it was an instant Yes from us.
Not only were we in the company of distinguished chefs and culinary minds from Manila to as far as Cebu and Cagayan de Oro. We were in Baguio, my favorite childhood vacation place, as well. The City of Pines has always been special to me, each trip up the winding zigzag paths of Kennon Road or Marcos Highway always brought back fond memories of my childhood summer vacations spent in my maternal grandparents’ place in Tayug, Pangasinan. My Gua-kong (grandfather, mother side) had a lumber and hardware store in Tayug, and my four elder sisters and I, plus my mom, always hied off to the province during summer vacation. My dad (I miss him so much!) would follow and stay for a few days before going back to Manila to, like a soldier, resume his duties in my Ang-kong’s (grandfather, father side) own hardware store in Sta. Ana, Manila. While vacationing in Tayug, my Tua-ku (uncle, eldest brother of mom) and Tua-kim (aunt, wife of mom’s eldest brother) would arrange a couple or so trips to Baguio, some of them for a few days’ stay in their vacation house there and some of them round-trip day tours for us kids. My eldest sister Swanie spent so much time in the province that she spoke Ilocano like a real, full-blooded, honest-to-goodness native Ilocano, while I, being the bunso or youngest in the family, could only understand and speak basic Ilocano. But my Ilocano is good enough to help me haggle and get good bargains in the market whenever I went up to Baguio.
So there we were, Raff and I, in Baguio once again. Most of the members of the judging team met up early morning of September 5, Wednesday, at the ABS-CBN grounds and had buffet breakfast of Garlic Rice, Scrambled Egg and homemade Spanish Sardines, plus a platter of fresh fruits, at Restaurant 9501. We shared a table with The Heritage Hotel Manila’s executive housekeeper Eli Nilo and husband Benigno Nilo of Waling-Waling Resort, as well as with Chef Myrna’s ever-reliable operations manager Raul Ramos and banquet head Marie Garcia. We talked about lots of things but mainly centered on the new wonder herb, Ashitaba, which Ms. Eli was able to propagate.
I should say I was so impressed with how organized Chef Myrna’s team was. The moment Raff and I arrived at the ABS-CBN grounds, staff from the organizing team got hold of our luggage, tagged them and arranged them according to which van we were taking up to Baguio. A waiter then ushered us in and escorted us to the elevator, which we took to get to Restaurant 9501 on the 14th floor of ELJ Bldg. After a filling buffet breakfast and chika-chika with Via Mare’s iconic Glenda Barretto, cakemaker to the stars Penk Ching and Tuloy Foundation’s Chef Jean Pierre Migne (we were in the company of celebrities!), we were all ready to get on our way. So we took the elevator down, got into the van where we were assigned, and soon the four vans moved, on convoy, on our journey to Baguio, where we would we hosted by Baguio Country Club, home of the famous Raisin Bread.
LUNCH IN PAMPANGA
The ride was smooth and uneventful. After a few wiwi stops along the way, we were entering Villa Gloria Subdivision in Angeles City on our way to Chef Claude Tayag’s famous and critically acclaimed Bale Dutung. That was where we were going to have lunch. Bale Dutung, the home, artist’s workshop of Claude as an artist and sculptor, and kitchen playground and spacious dining hall of Claude, with whom I have travelled to Ilocos Norte, Tarlac and Singapore with in the past, is a unique by-reservation-only restaurant which Claude runs with wife Mary Ann, and it’s always the first stop, the ultimate lunch stop, of the judging team from Manila on the way to Baguio annually.
Our vans took the final turn along Paul corner Francis Ave., and lunch was ready in the al fresco dining hall of Bale Dutung that was lined with long wooden tables and benches with creative chandeliers made of bamboo poles and shells hanging from above.
On the buffet table was a spread of local favorites. For starters, everyone, including Raff and I, headed for the Tamales, Suman (there were three kinds: Ube with Macapuno, Kalabasa Biko, and Duman), and Tsokolate-Eh prepared the authentic way. Then it was off to the round central table, which was laden with crispy Guagua Style Mini Longganisa, Pritong Dalag with Fresh Mustasa Leaves and Burong Hipon, Shredded Tapang Damulag with Carabao’s Milk, and Pistú with mini pandesal bites.
To crisp up the Guagua Style Mini Longganisa, Claude said you have to first boil the longganisa, discard the water in which it was boiled, and then fry it to a crisp. Otherwise, it will not become crispy. As for the Pritong Dalag with Fresh Mustasa Leaves and Burong Hipon (fried mudfish with fresh mustard leaves and fermented shrimps), it’s a traditional Kapampangan dish. You put the meat of the fried fish on a piece of mustard leaf, top it with a small amount of buro and bite into it. The Shredded Tapang Damulag with Carabao’s Milk is another traditional Kapampangan dish, a farmer’s meal, actually. You put a scoop of rice in a bowl, followed by a generous amount of the shredded fried carabao’s milk, then you pour fresh carabao’s milk over it and sprinkle a little rock salt on it. The Pistú, meanwhile, is a typical Kapampangan special occasion dish served in morning banquets such as weddings and death anniversaries. Its ingredients are like those of the usual tortang baboy, including ground pork, chorizo, beaten eggs and Parmesan cheese. It’s enjoyed on pandesal. For the Bale Dutung lunch, Claude had mini pandesals made to go with the pistú.
Dessert came in the form of Tibok-tibok (Pampanga’s version of Maja Blanca made with fresh carabao’s milk), Minatamis na Kamote and Yakon (a locally grown rootcrop with lots of health benefits) on stick.
“I serve this menu for the group’s lunch before proceeding to Baguio every year. I do not change the menu because they want the same things every year. These are what they really like,” says an amused Claude, who was all packed and set to join the judging group on the sojourn to Baguio after the hearty lunch at Bale Dutung.
This time, though, Mary Ann couldn’t join him because Bale Dutung had a booked function for September 8 (Saturday) and one of them had to stay behind to supervise the food preparations.
Armed with plastic bags full of mini pandesals filled with pistú and longganisa as well as yakon, the group hit the main road of Sto. Rosario St., Angeles City, Pampanga, and got on the way. As always, the Tarlac stretch of the road trip to Baguio turned out to be the most agonizingly long part of the journey. Even I, who opted to stay awake during the trip to take in the refreshing view of the countryside (I love staring at lusciously green ricefields and huge solitary mango trees standing proud at the center of the green fields), snoozed for a moment during the Tarlac stretch and turned bright-eyed with excitement again only when the van hit Rosales/Pangasinan. This part of the journey always excited me because the moment SM Rosales came into view, I knew we were already in Carmen, Rosales, the town that led right to Tayug, Pangasinan, when you turned right. I guess those were moments when I would chase fond childhood memories spent with my sisters and our cousins in my maternal grandparents’ home province.
Soon, we were on our way up the winding roads of Kennon Road, where I loved to look at the mountainsides and the falls that dotted them. Every time I went up to Baguio, I wished that I could take pictures of those lovely falls on the way up (or down), but there was no chance, really, and no comfortable place to pull over and aim the camera. I just had to keep a photograph of those lovely falls in my memory.
COZY HOME IN BAGUIO
It was already late afternoon by the time the van pulled up in front of Baguio Country Club. The GM, Anthony de Leon, who also served as president of the HRAB, greeted the new arrivals, both old friends and new faces, and the check-in process took only a few minutes, since everything had been pre-arranged. After a short rest in the room, we all went down to the lobby and proceeded to a function room for dinner and judges’ briefing.
Dinner was buffet style, and it was a feast for me because there were so many fish and seafood choices. Raff and I first went for the Japanese Salad (cucumber, shredded kani or crabsticks and tobiko, served with Thousand Island dressing), Miso Soup, Salmon Sashimi and California Maki. Then we opted for the Fish Furai (breaded fish fillets cooked to a crisp) and Salmon Teriyaki for the main event.
Dessert was temptingly inviting, with Blueberry Cheesecake and Caramel Brownies for the taking, but we stuck to fresh fruits for our meal-ender.
The judges’ briefing followed to get the organizers and the team of judges together and get everyone ready for Day 1 of the 9th Hotel, Restaurant Tourism Weekend’s culinary competitions which start early the next morning. The schedule was given out so we would all know what our judging assignments were and get ready for them, then everyone, tired from the long journey, called it a night.
DAY 1 OF THE COMPETITIONS
Raff and I woke up quite early the next morning. We didn’t have 8:00 a.m. judging assignments, but my first event, Table Setting (Students category) would be on at the West Verandah at 9:00 a.m., so we wouldn’t be able to make it to the 10:00 a.m. formal opening and unveiling of the Biggest Wedding Cake at SM Baguio.
After a quick breakfast at the Verandah, which started with fresh fruits with a cup of hot, freshly brewed Benguet Blend coffee and ended with a platter of Daing na Bangus and Mushroom and Tomato Omelette with Garlic Rice, it was off to my first official duty.
I was judging the Table Setting: Wine and Dine (Students category) with Gina Navarro of the famous Estrel’s Caramel Cakes in Quezon City and Marie Garcia, banquet head of Restaurant 9501. Raul Ramos, operations manager of Restaurant 9501, was also around, helping us get to the nitty-gritties of the table setups made by the students. As the teams went to work within their given time, the four of us walked around watching how they worked and observing their setups for a romantic dinner for two, then we got around to actually talking to them and asking them questions about their setups. We jotted down our own scores, then Gina, Marie and I sat down together to make a consolidated score, which didn’t take long because our choices were aligned with each other’s.
My next judging chore was scheduled at 1:00 p.m. yet, so Raff and I made a quick stop at Raisin Bread, the cake shop of Baguio Country Club, and placed orders for Baguio Country Club’s famous Raisin Bread to take home with us on Saturday. My sisters Swanie and Mary had asked for Raisin Bread for pasalubong, as well as Mountain Maid Strawberry Jam from the Good Shepherd sisters, so I made sure I was going to go back home to Manila with some. That’s how I really was whenever I was out of town. At the first available opportunity, I would do my pasalubong shopping, so that the items are securely in place inside my luggage and I didn’t have to worry about them at the very last minute. So that’s what I did. Half of the pasalubong mission was accomplished. We just had to pick up our order after breakfast on Saturday. With that done, Raff and I proceeded to the Multi-Purpose Hall, where the bulk of the competitions was taking place. This time, we were on official duty for FLAVORS Magazine, doing a coverage of the event that was taking place. We took pictures of the entries to The Cordillera Kitchen and Coffee Concoction: The Brew Master competitions that were still ongoing at that time, as well as captured our colleagues at work in photographs.
Then we retreated to the Judges’ Lounge at the far end of the Multi-Purpose Hall, where some of our fellow judges – Eli and Benigno Nilo, and Susan Carag – were busy deliberating on their The Housekeeper: The Honeymoon event. Afterwards, we all had a nice and quiet lunch of Cream of Squash Soup, Roast Turkey with Mashed Potato and Steamed Vegetables, and Strawberry Tart.
Before long, Marie was in the Judges’ Lounge, sounding me off for our next Table Setting: Wine and Dine (Professional) event at the West Verandah. It was the same group – Marie, Gina and I – who were judging. We walked towards the venue, where the four competing teams were getting ready to start, and, upon seeing the two of us (Gina followed a little while later), the assigned Event OIC gave the go signal and the teams starting doing their table setups. The three of us went through the same judging process, and by the time we finished putting together our scores on one sheet and affixing our signatures on it, it was only around 3:00 p.m. We had lots of time before dinner, but the sky was gloomy and Raff and I both didn’t want to go out. So we surveyed the product stalls that stood on one side of the Multi-Purpose Hall, and I saw one store where I could get Mountain Maid strawberry jams for my sisters. Thank God I didn’t have to go out to get them! Then we went up to the room, where Raff watched TV and I worked on a few articles for the magazine on my laptop. I had brought work with me to Baguio, as I always did on trips because I didn’t want free time to go to waste. In between glimpses at the TV, I managed to finish the cover story for the magazine’s next issue and, accessing the free WiFi at Baguio Country Club, I also got to email it to my art director, Dan Hernando, for layout.
Pleased with myself, I went to freshen up, and then Raff and I went down to join the rest of the group at the lobby. Dinner was going to be at Le Monet Hotel, the new concept hotel inside Camp John Hay. Le Monet’s GM, Dante Cruz, whom we met in the Judges’ Lounge earlier in the day, was hosting dinner that evening. The last group squeezed into a service van, which took us to Le Monet, where the others were already waiting.
Dinner was delightfully informal. There was a buffet spread of delicious fingerfoods that were beautifully presented in individual portions, including the shrimp-and-scallop, shrimp-and-squid combinations on scallop shells and the rice balls on bamboo skewers that looked like crispy, golden lollipops. We shared a quiet corner table with doctor-turned restaurateur Doc Efren ‘Boy’ Vasquez, the brains behind the highly recommended Café Juanita in Kapitolyo, Pasig. The Nilos, Eli and Benigno, and Susan Carag of Shangri-La Properties’ luxurious St. Francis condo project later joined us. The entire team of judges had snapshots taken all around the hotel.
When the service van arrived, our little group quietly sneaked out to go back to the hotel as the rest started having an after-dinner drink or two. I was ‘low-bat’ and I wanted to hit the sack early.
DAY 2: MOCKTAIL TIME!
My first judging duty was, again, at 9:00 a.m., this time at the BCC Multi-Purpose Hall’s Center Stage for Mocktail Mixing: The Mocktail Host (Professional Division). So breakfast had to be no later than 8:00 a.m. We shared a round table at the Verandah with Food Magazine editor Nana Ozaeta, food stylist-recipe developer and FLAVORS columnist Chef Eugene Raymundo, Raul and Claude. Restaurateur Mitos Benitez-Yniguez, who owns and runs Hill Station in Baguio city proper, later joined us.
Since I didn’t have salad for breakfast yesterday, I made one for myself today, combining salad greens like lettuce and watercress on my plate and piling it up with shredded carrots, sliced cucumber, corn kernels and tomatoes. I love having salad in Baguio because the produce is fresh and crisp. For the main meal, I had Daing na Bangus again, this time combined with Crispy Danggit. Yes, I always go for the fish options, although Baguio Country Club’s buffet spread is replete with interesting stuff like Derecado and Smoked Chicken Longganisa, Tocino and Tapa. I have long given up red meat, making exceptions and taking small bites only when I have to judge so I can score fairly.
Conversations among friends and new acquaintances can go on and on, but we all had our own 9:00 a.m. judging assignments, so we went on our way. Nana, Mitos and I were actually on the same judging panel for Mocktail Mixing, so it was off to the Multi-Purpose Hall for us. By the time I got there, Marie was already there. With four judges present, we got the show underway. There were only six contestants, so we were judging in a very relaxed manner. Each contestant had only three minutes for their routine. They could incorporate dance and other entertaining acts into their mocktail preparation routine, but woe to the ones who exceeded the three-minute time limit for it meant a deduction on their score. But the bigger problem some contestants encountered was failure to answer a bar-related question asked by a judge. Answer correctly and you got a full 10 points for Bar Knowledge; give a wrong answer and you automatically get 0 points for Bar Knowledge. That’s huge!
A short break later and the same judging panel was on again, this time for Mocktail Mixing: The Mocktail Host (Student Division) at the same venue at 11:30 a.m. We had more contestants this time, a total of 13, but there was no lull moment. The contestants made their routines very exciting, dancing, twisting, turning, flippin’ bottles and shakers in the air as they prepared their mocktails (cocktail drinks without alcohol, by the way).
We hied off to the Judges’ Lounge to consolidate our scores and take a break for lunch. What’s nice about being a judge-guest of Baguio Country Club is that Anthony (de Leon, the GM) really takes care of everything, down to the smallest details. Lunch, for instance, is laid out on a small buffet spread at the Judges’ Lounge every day, and it’s nothing short of spectacular. Yesterday, there was a whole Roast Turkey on a carving station, complete with gravy. Today, it was ‘bottomless’ Ebi Tempura and Fish Tempura as centerpiece. There’s food, coffee and tea, for breakfast and merienda, too. Even soda in cans are on stand-by whenever you want one, and the bottled water is imported Fiji Natural Artesian Water.
Since that was the last judging job I had, we had a free schedule in the afternoon. But before we officially called it a done job, Raff and I went to Baguio Country Club’s Training Center, which stood next to the West Verandah, to take pictures of the other entries to the other competitions, such as Baby Cakes, Amuse Bouche, Creative Cake Decoration, The Filipino Carver and Bouquet Floral Design. That was where the entries to the day’s competitions were displayed. We needed those for the magazine. We walked through the aisles with students and other guests, took the necessary pictures, and then went up to our room. I worked on another article on my laptop, emailed it to Dan in the office, and washed up for dinner at Hill Station.
Yes, Ms. Mitos was hosting the group’s dinner that evening, and we were awed when we got to Hill Station. Located within the Casa Vallejo Boutique Hotel, Hill Station was a cozy, fine dining restaurant frequented by families and friends. It’s like an old wooden house that has been transformed into an exquisite restaurant that serves local comfort foods and international favorites, particularly Spanish specialties such as Callos, Paella and Fabada. Served immediately on the table upon our arrival were several Cheese Platters laid out with generous blocks of imported cheeses, with baskets of toasted bread on the side. Ever the gracious host, Mitos encouraged everyone to partake of the food on the buffet, which we did. The Fabada was fabulous! With the Tuna Croquettes and Vegetable Spring Rolls, I was already happy with my dinner. But Paella came, and so did Callos, and so we ate again. Simply delicious!
The Nilos and Susan were leaving early to drop by Le Monet Hotel again that evening, and so when the van arrived to take them to Le Monet, Raff and I tagged along and asked to be dropped off at Baguio Country Club. We wanted to get back to the hotel early to pack up, because Raff and I were leaving for Manila after breakfast the next day. The service vans were heading back to Manila in the afternoon yet, with the last van leaving on Sunday, and since so much domestic chores had to be done over the weekend, Raff and I decided to take the Victory Liner bus after breakfast on Saturday. We had done that before, and it was cool to take the bus. Victory Liner had buses leaving for Manila one after the other, so there was no problem with the schedule either.
The rest of the group stayed behind at Hill Station for a couple of hours more.
BACK TO MANILA
Early to rise the next morning, Raff and I went down to the Verandah for breakfast. There was a huge crowd both at the Verandah and out in the golf course that morning. Being a Saturday and, thus, a weekend, the usual crowd of families and golfing buddies were there. From the service staff at The Cotterman and the Verandah, we learned that a wedding was taking place that day, too, so the guests were already arriving.
I had my last Fresh Baguio Garden Salad for breakfast, and loaded up a bit on Daing na Espada and Garlic Rice in anticipation of the long journey home. Eugene joined us for breakfast and had his fill of his favorite longganisas and tocino – no carbs – and related how comfortable his ride up to Baguio was in a deluxe bus trip of Victory Liner last Thursday morning. The deluxe trip, which followed a schedule, had very spacious and comfortable seats, only two seats in a row on the driver’s side and one seat across, wide leg room between rows so you could recline your seat and sleep if you want to, and a comfort room towards the back. The trip was nonstop, so you would get to Manila faster, and you were a lot safer, as well, since the bus would not take any more passengers along the way. He believed that a deluxe bus would leave at 1:00 p.m., since Gina had left at around that time the previous day and taken the deluxe bus. He didn’t know if there was a deluxe trip leaving in the morning. Anyway, we would see…
After breakfast, we went to Raisin Bread to claim our order, went up to our room to pick up our bags, and then checked out at the lobby and made arrangements for drop-off at the Victory Liner terminal. While waiting for the shuttle, we got to chat with Nana, who was leaving with the first service van that afternoon, and she happened to mention that someone in the group was also leaving later that morning and was taking the Victory Liner deluxe trip scheduled at 11:00 a.m. There’s a deluxe trip at 11:00 a.m.! I glanced at my watch. It screamed 9:35 a.m. There was time to make it to the bus terminal and secure deluxe trip tickets for 11:00 a.m.
But something even better happened. When we got to the bus terminal at 9:50 a.m., Raff went straight up to the ticketing booth while I remained downstairs to watch over our stuff. He came rushing down a few minutes later, announcing that a deluxe trip was scheduled at 10:10 a.m. and he had bought tickets for that trip. He checked on the buses parked up front taking passengers, spotted the deluxe bus, and we got on it. Raff had chosen Seats 1 and 2, right behind the driver, to make it really comfortable and convenient for us. We had our bags stored in the baggage compartment on the left side of the bus and, to his surprise, was issued a claim stub just like in a plane. There was good enough room in the overhead baggage compartment for our breads. I walked towards the back to inspect the comfort room, which was located around the middle of the bus, and then went back to my seat. We reclined our seats and got ready for the long ride. The bus left right on schedule, we had a stewardess on board (her name was Michelle), we were served Lemon Square cheese cupcake duos and a bottle of mineral water, and given a complimentary copy of LaQbay/LoQal, a small travel magazine, to read.
Music played, and I hummed along as I kept my sight on the pine trees, the rock formations and the occasional waterfalls on the mountainside down the winding path of Marcos Highway. When we hit the plains, the stewardess played a DVD movie, Battleship, an alien invasion cum love story, that kept our eyes glued to the screen. I had intended to snooze during the long Tarlac stretch of the trip, but I did not even notice that we had reached Tarlac. When Battleship ended, Michelle followed it up with The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which, again, kept our eyes glued on the screen. By the time the second movie ended, the bus was entering the Cubao terminal of Victory Liner. Perfect timing!
Raff and I walked down the bus totally satisfied. For P715 per person, it was definitely not bad. We took a cab home, with memories of our latest Baguio sojourn still fresh on our minds. Till the next time!