MANILA, Philippines?The Mayon Volcano rises majestic as soon as you approach Albay whether by land or air. At one point, you seem to be closer to it and yet you see that it?s not the perfect cone as pictures have shown. The tip is jagged, there are smoke vents on its side, cracks here and there, and the cone has ridges from lava flows every time it erupts.
As you move from town to town the volcano travels with you, sometimes placing itself dead ahead, sometimes disappearing for a while and then reappearing where you don?t expect it. I thought I was the only one who looks for it every morning on waking to know if it shows itself in full or is hiding behind white gossamer clouds. But then my host said his grandfather always drank his coffee looking at the Mayon to comment on how it looked that morning, every morning.
It?s not the first time I?ve witnessed such awe and reverence for a mountain. Mt. Banahaw in Quezon also dominates the scenery. Its presence is felt keenly as well by the people who live at its foot.
The Mayon Volcano is so identified with Bicol province. And the food you get there is also identified with the place. Mention gabi (taro) and pili and you know those are Bicol ingredients you are referring to. And somehow when food spiced with chili is cited, Bicol is what comes to mind.
Camalig in Albay is the place to go to for its famous pinangat. The gabi packets are held together by strips made of coconut fronds. A loop at one end signifies the pinangat is safely mild; no loop means it has enough chili to make it hot.
Benny and Bing Padriquela are one of the pinangat makers who supply the restaurants in Camalig. They had finished making the batch of about 60 pinangat that morning but were gracious to show me anyway how every packet is made.
In their kitchen, a seesaw-like contraption was in the middle of everything. It turned out to be a coconut milk press called ipisan that can process the volume of coconut cream needed for the amount of pinangat they churn out, an average of 120 pieces a day.
Benny showed how the ipisan works. A bundle containing grated coconut with some water is placed underneath one end of a lever on a container made of tin. He steps on the other end then jumps on it, keeping his balance by holding on to a wooden bar. The lever then presses on the bundle and from it the coconut cream is expressed which is caught in a pail. It looked like fun and so I tried it. My first jump brought me back to my seesaw days when the thrill was the feeling of flying and then almost falling off.
Bing demonstrated making the packet. She said she mixed the recado beforehand made of coco milk mixed in with chopped native ginger, lemon grass, some salt and pepper. Two to three gabi leaves make up each packet and into that goes the recado, chopped gabi leaves and some chopped pork. The art is really in the folding of the leaves.
Camalig pinangat are big pieces. I?ve seen other pinangat that are much smaller, neater looking. When the packets are cooked, whitish clouds of cream form outside. Those give a preview of the rich and creamy treat that awaits the buyer.
?Pili? trees all around
The first time I went to Bicol, Naga, to be precise, I asked my Bicolano friend where the pili trees are located. She laughed and said they were all around me.
And so it was on my last visit. I can?t seem to recognize the tree with or without its fruit.
The fruit I learned to eat in Manila when Beth Romualdez invited so she could educate me on just how Bicolanos cook and then eat it. She instructed that water should be boiled and the fire has to be turned off then the fruit soaked in until it softens. The fruit has to be taken out right away or it will harden. The fruit covering is peeled, the flesh is removed from the nut then dipped in cuyog or salted small fish.
In Daraga, Albay, we had grilled swordfish (malasugue) belly for lunch and with it the pili fruit and cuyog, the necessary partnership. Next day, the pili nut shell that remained after the fruit was eaten is cracked and its still green nut tasted like a firmer squash seed.
In Gubat, Sorsogon, a bottle of pili nut oil was brought out. The oil doesn?t come from the nut but from the fruit, pressed just like olives. I wonder how many fruits were needed to make that one tall bottle. It smelled and tasted like pili. I don?t know how it will compare to other salad oils?olive, grapeseed, walnut. Because virgin coconut oil is difficult to make into a dressing since it solidifies, maybe we can make a go of pili nut oil.
Also in Gubat, the traditional sweet called conserva, pili nut mixed with panocha wrapped in a leaf, was demonstrated. I was told that without the leaf, the conserva won?t taste the same. A bit of sweetened pili tasted right after the cooking convinced me.