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Laguna The Beautiful

A trip to Laguna is like a treasure hunt. Every single visit holds the promise of discovery, and there have been many over the years: picnicking on the slopes of Mount Makiling, scouting the little restaurants that cluster near the University of the Philippines campus in Los Baños, driving to Paete with friends bent on shopping for beautiful woodcarved furniture, waking up at an indecent hour in San Pablo to have coffee on the lake. Laguna is so accessible and familiar, that it may no longer feel exciting. But why not try going again to take a closer look?

Pila 

The historic Corazon Rivera House in Pila. Photo: Justin Ventura

The charming town of Pila is one of the oldest in the country, already a center of trade before the Spanish arrived. Cora Relova, a founding member of the Pila Historical Society Foundation, says that in the ‘60s, excavations in the area yielded ceramics, scholar’s tools and writing implements dating back to the 12th century. There were even exquisite pieces of Sung and Yuan Chinese pottery, a clue that the Pileños were already avid art collectors.
In the ‘90s, the discovery of the Laguna Copperplate Inscription, the oldest known written document in the Philippines, proved the existence of a sophisticated society with a complex system of laws. The Spaniards were so impressed by the refinement of Pila that they awarded it a special status: La Nobilia Villa de Pila (The Noble Town of Pila) in 1610, an honor granted to only four other towns in the Philippines. 

Present-day Pila retains the Spanish colonial layout with the town plaza in the center, and the historic San Antonio de Padua Church facing off with the municipal hall. They are surrounded by beautifully-preserved houses in the 1920s American colonial style, in cream and pastel colors with wide open verandas. There are 30 historic structures in Pila, most still inhabited by the town’s original families, so a strong sense of community is palpable. “Life is peaceful here,” says Relova. “There’s a feeling of safety and security. Our neighbors are still our family and friends.” In her ancestral home, the historic Corazon Rivera House named after her grandmother, Relova hosted a traditional merienda, Pila- style. There were homemade puto Biñan with kesong puti, maja blanca and fresh buko juice. As we ate, she shared a little of her family’s history and described the fine points of the house which she describes as an American chalet-style with Spanish design elements, as evident for example in the wood- carved ventanillas that let in fresh air. Like any grand dame, Pila feels both genteel and stately that visitors are instinctively on their best behavior when they come.

San Pablo 

On the road to San Pablo, it is absolutely necessary to stop by a tiny roadside kiosk to buy hot, freshly-made bibingka. Made of ground rice and alangan (coconut meat), with a smoky flavor from the fire of dried coconut husks, it is handed to you still warm and generously slathered with margarine and cheese. The next stop is Café Lago along the banks of Sampaloc Lake, the biggest of the seven lakes of San Pablo. Owner Tony Marino spent 30 years in New York working on Broadway (he was once the king in The King and I). He and brother Mandy spearheaded a community project to restore the polluted lake to its old glory. Today, Sampaloc Lake is pristine and its fresh breezes and magnificent view lend atmosphere to the tiny restaurant. Café Lago is the ancestral home of the Marinos, and they will serve you their childhood favorites, like buttered chicken (actually made with Star margarine) with pako salad, and halo-halo for dessert, but served deconstructed with a fried lumpia casing. The real highlight is listening to Tony share anecdotes of his years in Broadway. 

Santa Cruz 

Aurora Filipino Cuisine in Santa Cruz is a gem of a restaurant. It is the rare place where you can sit down for a vintage Southern Tagalog meal. The restaurant was the ancestral home of owners, Chef Theodore ‘Day’ Salonga, his sister Gel Salonga and their partner Chef Mon Urbino. It was built in the 1920s and had been, at one point in its career, a beauty parlor. Traces remain in the scary, old fashioned electric hair curlers and gizmos that are kept as decor. 

The menu, as designed by Chef Day, is a celebration of local Laguna cuisine. “Guests get an authentic experience of how it was dining during the time of our great-grandparents.” You will immediately note local delicacies on the menu, such as the 1920s Chicken Wings Adobo, an heirloom recipe of Isidra Guevarra, wife of native-born Senator Pedro Guevarra. The quaintly-named minanok has no chicken but is made of banana heart cooked in burnt coconut cream and served with maruya. It was a popular merienda during the war years when meat was scarce. It’s now a local delicacy. I like to think of the resourceful wartime Tagalogs putting a brave face on in spite of food scarcity. 

Liliw 

If you really want to get away for a day, the perfect destination is Kinalimera, the private, by-reservation-only venue owned by Chef Raul Ramos, newly retired director of 9501, the executive restaurant at ABS-CBN. The place itself is idyllic, situated in the middle of farmlands, with fruit trees, coconuts and even a tiny gurgling brook. Chef Raul built a modest home complete with a swimming pool and a terraced space with a view of the surrounding fields. On our visit, Chef Raul chose to serve a selection of breakfast specials and lutong probinsya. There was baboy damo chorizo and tapang kalabaw (amazingly tender). To these he added a refreshing pako salad with avocado and tomatoes, and a chicken binacol soup in coconut shells. Crispy pork sinantolan was his mother’s recipe, but also very characteristic of Laguna. And a shrimp aligue with coconut cream sauce. It was the perfect balance of rustic and refined, a beautiful ending to our Laguna adventure.