Last July, I briefly experienced what it was like to be a tour operator. Some relatives from abroad were in town and they asked yours truly to book a series of trips for them. I had three challenges. First, the ages of the vacationers ranged 1 to 60 years old (meaning: no one wanted to take long road trips or walk too far). Second, they’d gone to most of the Philippines’s popular spots (Boracay, Palawan, Baguio, etc.). And lastly, the trips were taking place in July, during the manic “wet but humid” season.
I’d listed down attractions in and around Metro Manila. Things like museum trips, performances at the CCP (Cultural Center of Philippines), and places to eat filled my notes. I’d almost ironed everything out when I chanced upon mangankapampangan.com, a website run by Bryan Ocampo. Initially, I was a bit skeptical. I’d done some tourism-related work in the past and I’d never heard of him. However, Bryan’s prompt and professional replies to my queries won me over.
A mouthful of culture
Our education started even before we set foot in Pampanga. While on the road, Bryan shared Kapampangan trivia – famous personalities and historical chismis (gossip).
We made our first stop in Guagua, a town 77 kilometers north of Manila, to have breakfast at Lapid’s Bakery. I imagined we’d be having tons of pan de sal but I was wrong. Our sleepy group was treated to lechón pugón – a crispy with a hint of smokiness and frankly quite lovely lechon! Lechón pugón is a pork belly baked for four hours in a traditional brick oven (pugón).
Aside from the lechon, we also had longganisang Guagua, suman bulagta and hot chocolate with crushed peanuts. We also had some chicharon (pork crackling), a novel experience for my daughter who’d never tried it!
After breakfast, we headed on to Betis Church (Santiago Apostol Parish Church), a Baroque church dedicated to St. James. The church’s original wood and stucco structure dates back to 1660. A series of fires destroyed the original structure and a concrete Betis Church was completed in 1770.
One look at the intricately painted ceilings, wall murals and trompe d’ oeil of the church and it is easy to see why it was dubbed the “Sistine Chapel of the Philippines”. Much of the art at Betis Church was created by the celebrated 19th-century painter Simon Flores. The dome, titled “The Genesis and the Apocalypse” is one of the church’s most notable features. On November 5, 2001 the church was declared a National Treasure by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the National Museum.
One thing I appreciated was the church’s dress code. Might seem a tad hoity toity to some, but to me the dress code emphasized just how much the people of Betis respect the church. If you happen to visit the church and are in shorts or a tank top, the caretakers will lend you a wrap or big shawl so you can cover up when you enter the sanctuary.
We visited two other churches. The San Guillermo Parish Church is located in the municipality of Bacolor. It was built in 1576 by Augustinian priests and rebuilt in 1886 after being destroyed by an earthquake. On October 1, 1995, over 20 ft. of lahar flowing from Mt. Pinatubo buried Bacolor. Only the top half of the church is visible today. There are also paintings depicting Bacolor’s recovery from the lahar disaster housed in the church.
The Holy Rosary Parish Church, located along Santo Rosario street in Angeles City boasts of ornate doors, twin bell towers and a silver sunburst altar.
It also has an interesting historical marker:
An American Bomber Mitchell’ B-25 struck the roof of the nave of the church on January 7, 1945. The bomber was hit by a Japanese flak as it was bombing Clark Field. The 345th Bomb Group “Air Apaches” and the 499th Bomb Squadron “Bats Outa Hell”, both part of the 5th Air Force of the United States Army are remembered on this spot.
The Pampanga Food Museum or Museo ning Angeles is right across the Holy Rosary Parish Church. Its Culinarium showcases the region’s food traditions. The Culinarium has a “living kitchen” where cooking demos and lectures are regularly held. It also has a turn of the century kitchen and dining area featuring heirloom kitchen utensils. The Culinarium also has a library filled with culinary history books and cook books.
We made two detours to sweet factories during our trip. We visited the turrones de casoy shop of Ocampo Lansang Delicacies in Sta. Rita and Carreon’s Sweets and Pastries in Magalang.
Carreon’s is where the heavenly delicate plantanillas and rich pastillas de leche are made. I was disappointed to hear that they don’t sell the stuff anywhere else. The owner, Francis Carreon, explained that they don’t distribute their products because they use fresh carabao’s milk and use zero preservatives. Their products are so good though, that I’m planning on doing a little hoarding on my next visit.
The brief visits included a taste test, which our group thoroughly enjoyed.
Step into the Cusinang Matua (old kitchen) of chef and premier food historian Atching Lillian Borromeo and you’d feel like you’d have gone back in time. The space is full of heirlooms: from decades old copper pans, clay talyasi (covered clay wok), old photographs, bilaos bearing the initial’s of Borromeo’s ancestors to 17th century hand-carved wooden San Nicolas cookie molds. The molds have intricate designs. Some are like family crests, uniquely designed to represent the family who once owned the molds.
Our overwhelming lunch spread was cooked by Atching Lillian herself. For starters, there was soup, pako salad, paksing demonyo (it’s a pickled vegetable). There was a galatina, tidtad (a Pampango version of dinuguan), hito (catfish) with buro (fermented rice), and bringhe (sort of like arroz valenciana but made with coconut milk). Didn’t try the tidtad but I must say, the buro was a revelation. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. There was also tibuk-tibok and leche flan.
The visit included a cooking demonstration and lecture on the history of Panecillos de San Nicolas. Named after St. Nicholas de Tolentino, a saint who was said to be healed after the Virgin Mary instructed him to eat a special kind of bread dipped in water. During the Spanish era, it was widely believed that San Nicolas cookies could heal the sick.
San Nicolas cookies are made of arrowroot, egg yolks, flour, coconut milk, vegetable oil and sugar.
Making these melt in your mouth cookies is no mean feat. The dough has to be carefully rolled onto the molds, cut into ovals and transferred onto baking sheets.
Our tour ended with dinner at Everybody’s Cafe. Located along Mc Arthur Highway in San Fernando, the restaurant’s homey interiors and kitschy décor makes you feel like you’re visiting a relative or an ancestral home. It really was very cozy.
Normally, I wouldn’t dare order betute (stuffed frog) but this being a food tour, we sampled not just betute but carabao beef and kamaru (mole crickets). Surprisingly, everything was palatable. The kamaru especially. It was crunchy and tasted a bit like an earthier chicharon. All the exotic food almost overshadowed the equally yummy beef morkon and sinigang na sugpo.
Say “Pampanga” and visions of tocino, sisig, kare-kare, and longganisa immediately spring to mind. Hailed as the Philippine foodie capital, Pampanga has also produced some of the country’s brightest culinary minds. Aside from Atching Lillian, Chef Claude Tayag of Bale Dutung fame, restauranteur and author Gene Gonzalez and celebrity chef Sau del Rosario are also true blue Kapampangans. Perhaps it’s because Pampanga is home to such familiar favorites and famous names, all well-esconed in our collective taste buds, that it becomes easy to dismiss its excitements as passé. Thankfully, Bryan’s Mangan Kapampangan tour showed us the error of our ways.