By CJ Juntereal
For someone who has spent almost her entire life not going up to Baguio, I’ve visited Baguio two times in the last three months. I think it’s because I’ve been lucky enough both times to stay at The Manor at Camp John Hay. It makes a difference to me—being surrounded by clean air and open spaces, instead of city streets and crowds.
On our last trip, we were invited up to experience Panagbenga, another first for me. Panagbenga, which is the Kankanaey term for “a season for blossoming, a time for flowering,” began in 1996 as the Baguio Flower Festival. I hadn’t realized that as a festival, Panagbenga is barely 20 years old. Today it has evolved into a month-long celebration with a true community spirit. I think what makes it work is that it is spearheaded by a private group, the Baguio Flower Festival Foundation.
The highlights of Panagbenga are the street dancing and band competition, and the Parade of Floats (held on two consecutive mornings), and Session Road in Bloom, held on Sunday one week after the Parade of Floats. Session Road is closed to vehicles as it is transformed into a giant outdoor market with food stalls, flower stalls, outdoor cafes, souvenir stalls, and musical performances at night. We couldn’t stay for Session Road in Bloom, but could you imagine the smell of all that Baguio longanisa sizzling up into air?
I’ve been to other festivals, but I don’t think I’ve been to one as organized as Panagbenga—road closures and traffic directional signs were marked all over the city, and the parades started on time. People arrived early and lined up on Session Road with no pushing and shoving. The participants competed by school, from little children to college students. They danced down Session Road in the most colorful and glittery of costumes. Baguio’s sister cities also sent contingents in national costumes around Asia.
At the Parade of Floats the next morning, the motorized floats were truly all covered in real flowers, and some even had moving parts. I wondered where all the blooms came from, because there were thousands. If you could only attend one day of Panagbenga, then the Parade of Floats would be the must-attend event. Aside from the floats, some of which carried celebrities, the teams that won from the previous day’s street dance competition also performed.
Since we were with like-minded food writers, after the parades and in between Panagbenga activities we did what Baguio is best known for—eating, snoozing in the cool air, and shopping for strawberries and ube jam. We did one better on this trip, though, and discovered Mang Jake who has a tiny table piled high with bagnet behind the police precinct inside Baguio Market. We took some home to be frozen for “emergencies” and for a small fee had some re-fried by The Manor’s kitchen. Gathered around the table in our room were five hungry people, a room service order of fried rice and chopsuey, icy gin and tonics, and that glorious piece of fatty, crispy, tasty-all-the-way-through bagnet. In Manila, we defrosted our bagnet, patted it dry, placed it in a turbo broiler at 350 degrees to heat up, and after half an hour blasted it up at 400 degrees until the skin turned crisp again. It was perfect.
We ate all of our breakfasts and two dinners at Le Chef at The Manor hotel. The breakfast buffet is one of the best in Baguio—with freshly baked breads, croissants, and Danish pastries, and fresh fruits, and a hefty Filipino breakfast that includes tapa cooked on demand, an egg station, pancakes and waffles, a mound of bacon, noodle soups and congee, yogurt and cereal, and homemade taho. The Manor makes some of the best Eggs Benedict I have ever had, and all you have to do is request it from the chef at the egg station.
Chef Billy King runs The Manor kitchen like a tight ship. It can’t be easy to cook for a restaurant like Le Chef that serves everything from merienda items, to Filipino and international comfort food dishes to fine dining. I’ve seen families sit down to a meal where one person ate pancit guisado and another ate Rack of Lamb with Herbs de Provence. Le Chef serves an excellent French onion soup, with a rich beef broth, perfectly caramelized onions, and lots of gooey melted Gruyere cheese on a baguette floating on top. It is also one of the very few places that serve an excellent soufflé. We ordered Grand Marnier Souffles’ airy and studded with bits of fresh orange aside from the liqueur. It’s interesting to note that the three chefs who make the best soufflés are all alumni of Le Soufflé restaurant and the Hotel Intercontinental’s Prince Albert Rotisserie—Chef Billy King, Chef Jessie Sincioco, and Chef Marc Aubry.
On our second night, Chef Billy King supervised our dinner menu. For our main courses, he served black angus tenderloin with a rich port wine sauce or pan-fried sea bass in a delicate and buttery ginger-saffron sauce. He is a master of sauces—velvety, buttery, and intense in flavor. I’ve always thought that you can tell who the best chefs are by the way they make their sauces, whether one of the classics like hollandaise and demi-glace or the newer style of sauces that are light and fresh but still rich in flavor.
We also had lunch with a view at Café Adriana by Hill Station, which is on Outlook Ridge. Café Adriana is part of the group of restaurants run by Mitos Benitez Yñiguez who is a woman with unlimited energy, a colorful wardrobe, an equally colorful personality, and an infectious laugh. She describes the food she serves at Café Adriana as “mestizo” because it is sort of Spanish food cooked the Filipino way. So the menu had cocido, fabada, lengua estofado, salpicao, and lentejas. The paella is cooked the way my grandmother used to make it, tomato-based with soft moist rice and a little tutong at the bottom, and a glorious assortment of seafood and vegetables on top. The black paella is flavorful, dotted with white squid rings, and that will really stain your teeth black. It isn’t really a Spanish restaurant, though, hence the term “mestizo,” because the menu also contains pastas, pizzas, sandwiches, and Filipino breakfast.
Dinner at Mitos’ well-known Hill Station restaurant was a more international affair as the menu is composed of dishes from around the world. There was a tasty lamb stew with a rich slick of oil on top (always the best part of a stew) served with taro gnocchi, fish fillet with five spices, and chili tea rub, her chef’s version of ceviche, which has pieces of grilled pork belly and a roasted vegetable lasagna that inspired me to make my own version a week later. The best part of Hill Station’s menu is the section on slow-cooked stews and curries from famous “Hill Stations” around the world. It has Thai and Indian curries, Spanish callos, Cambodian chicken, Mexican cocido, Moroccan lamb ribs, and a list of other dishes.
Mitos is also a big supporter of Baguio’s small businesses and sells quite a few products under the Hill Station label. Among these are sunflower honey and local vinegars. They make nice presents to take home to friends. For ube jam, though, I always go to the market for Tamtanco’s Ube Jam. It’s a little less sweet and chunky with ube bits so the ube flavor really comes out. The owner is so proud of his product that he refused to sell it to us on a Friday when we told him that we would be returning to Manila on Sunday. He explained to us that it would become watery, if it was subjected to several changes in temperature. When we returned the next day, he finally agreed, instructing us to keep the lid open until the warm jam had cooled properly before storing it in the refrigerator, and keeping it in a cooler place for the trip down to Manila.
Back in Manila a few days later, we feasted on bagnet, ube jam, frozen strawberries, and Billy King’s boozy Irish tea bread, and wondered how soon we could return to Baguio.
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Le Chef at The Manor, Camp John Hay; 63 74 424-0907 for reservations.
Café Adriana by Hill Station, Outlook Ridge Residences, Outlook Drive; 63 74 661-3591for reservations.
Hill Station, Luneta Hill, Upper Session Road. 63 74 424-2734; 074 423-9100 for reservations.