Passion begins with a spark. This I learnt on my trip to the Philippines. For one woman from Cebu, Raquel T. Choa, it was the proud realisation that bitter cacao was the purest form of chocolate; The same cacao she painstakingly pounded by hand in her childhood, up in the mountains of Balamban. For another from Davao, Olive Puentespina, that spark was a surplus of goats’ milk when 30 goats on her farmhouse grew to 100. What better way to contribute to the upkeep of her 100 goats, than to make cheese out of all that milk? These two Filipinas went on to make a name for themselves while growing their passions. One woman became Cebu’s Chocolate Queen and the other became the remarkable cheesemaker behind the very first goat cheese feta made locally in the Philippines.
Bitter beginnings with Tablea make a sweet story.
Raquel Choa – Cebu’s Chocolate Queen
After a short ride on our minivan from Radisson Blu Cebu where I stayed, we reached Casa de Cacao where we were to experience “The Chocolate Journey”, a tour of Casa de Cacao and a demonstration of how the artisanal chocolates are made from scratch – raw cacao beans – by Cebu’s Chocolate Queen. We would get a taste of these chocolates, but the highlight, was meeting the Queen herself.
We were introduced to raw cacao beans and given a Cacao 101 lesson.
Raquel T. Choa was dubbed Cebu’s Chocolate Queen after receiving attention for her passionate promotion of traditional Filipino chocolate-making and recognition for her chocolate artistry. Casa de Cacao is part chocolate museum, part cafe and recreated to look like the palace. It is here where the urban legend of Maria Cacao, the queen of the cacao forest and a goddess from the mountains of Cebu, is brought to life.
Her chocolate creations are showcased in Casa de Cacao.
Chocolate paitings adorn the side of a staircase in Casa de Cacao.
Told to her by her lola (grandmother) when she lived a humble life in the mountains after her parents separated when she was seven, the tale of Maria Cacao captivated Raquel in her childhood, giving her comfort during hard times. It was told that Maria Cacao would sail past seven rivers – the same ones Raquel used to cross to get to school – on her golden ship loaded with cacao to trade them in Cebu and the world beyond. It is a story that inspired her to pursue her goal of putting Filipino chocolates on the world map and one that she holds close to her heart.
You’ll be able to find Raquel’s story on the walls of Casa de Cacao.
Raquel moved to the city, got married at 16 and became a mother of eight. For most Filipino women, this is the end of the road when it comes to chasing dreams and the legend of Maria Cacao and tablea-making faded to the back of her mind.
Years later, a friend from Argentina asked her, “What do you have in the Philippines, Raquel?” This was when it all came back. She wanted something to brag about too.
“My friend was sharing with me, bragging about wines, olive oils… I wanted to brag about the Philippines too.”
It was then that she thought, “Tablea!”
She described it to her friend. It was then that she realised that the ordinary, inconsequential tablea was chocolate, a luxurious, precious treat desired by many around the world.
So the tablea/tsokolate which she was so familiar with was actually chocolate all along!
The tablea is all ready to place into boiling water to make sikwate.
Raquel demonstrates how she pounds the cacao beans molds them into a tablet referred to as tablea.
Raquel recounts everything with such drama and emotion to each group that steps in through the doors of Casa de Cacao. One minute she is narrating the legend of Maria Cacao to her audience and the next she is sharing vivid memories of her childhood making tablea (pure cacao tablets made from molded nibs of fermented cacao beans).
Pounding the cacao beans with a lusong and alho (stone motar and wooden pestle).
Raquel asks an audience member to feel what the tablea is like.
Rolling freshly pounded cacao nibs into a ball.
These are detailed recounts of her past life; The tedious task of pounding the cacao beans into cacao nibs before rolling them with her warm palms or how she was forced to drink the thick, bitter, grainy water, sikwate (boiling water and tablea), like it was coffee each morning before leaving for school in order to survive. At points of her story, tears even well up in her eyes threatening to spill over, but then she’s back to telling the tale of Maria Cacao with fervour and spirit.
Raquel shows of the cacao nibs that she has rolled into a ball. You can see her eyes redden as she tells her story.
A cup of Sikwate served to her guests. Bitter, unsweetened chocolate indeed. Add condensed milk to taste.
She switches between timelines and stories so frequently that it is almost indistinguishable where the legend starts and ends in between all her personal anecdotes. You get a sense that, perhaps, the legend of Maria Cacao is so intertwined in Raquel’s personal story that it is difficult to separate the two. Hers is a rag-to-riches fairytale built on bringing the beauty of Filipino chocolate to the world stage and keeping the tradition of tablea-making alive; it is a fairytale that is as magical as a mythical, adventurous goddess on a golden ship that brings cacao from the mountains of Cebu to trade with the world.
This may sound cheesy, but it all began with 30 goats.
Olive Puentespina – the cheesemaker behind Davao’s Malagos brand
Over at Davao, there’s another woman we were about to meet with an equally incredible story.
“Actually, I’m an animal science major and my husband is a veterinarian,” quipped Olive Puentespina, owner of the internationally acclaimed Malagos Farmhouse. It’s hard not to wonder how this jolly woman with an infectious smile and a background in animal science got sucked into the world of cheese-making… in the tropical Philippines, of all places.
“We had lots of space on our farm and we decided to purchase 30 goats.”
The story goes that those 30 goats grew to 100 within a short three years and before Olive and her husband knew it, they had way too many goats and a large supply of quality goats’ milk that they couldn’t bear to go to waste on their hands. Olive had an idea. She would make cheese.
Malagos’ popular Chevre varieties, a lactic acid cheese is made from fresh pasteurised Goat’s milk collected daily from Malagos Dairy.
Malagos Feta Cheese is crumbly, slightly sour (or should I say acidic) and has just the right bit of saltishness.
She started making fresh cheese from her kitchen and it was good enough for her hungry kids, but Olive got hooked on making better cheese. It was down a rabbit hole for her, starting with learning the fundamentals from an old colleague of hers from university. Before long she was honing her skills and sought the help of a Swiss Cheese Master.
Olive sharing about how she has to deal with back aches and pains from making cheese.
Not withstanding the tough and back-breaking work of cheese-making, the first real challenge for Olive was how she would make cheese in such a tropical climate. Traditional European cheese-making methods required much lower temperatures than her environment afforded. Through plenty of improvisation on the techniques she picked up and converting her existing equipment to suit her tweaked cheese-making processes, she eventually hit bulls eye and started producing unbelievably good quality cheese consistently. Quality cheese from Davao? Who would have thought?
Blush La Maria with slices of Apples made with cow’s milk (on right)
Olive encouraged us to try the different types of cheese from Malagos and tell her which was our favourite.
What began as an answer to help supplement their upkeep of their large herd and cope with growing overheads, went from fledging business to becoming an established brand name in the Philippines. Her cheeses have made their way into restaurants in Davao, delis, hotels as well as retail outlets. Even after the success of Malagos Cheese, Olive can’t stick to just making the 20 varieties of cheese she’s created.
Olive waxes lyrical on her cheese-making adventure – Filipino style!
“I can’t stop making new types of cheese! My kids will give me suggestions. I just want to try something new all the time,” she shares this with a little twinkle in her eye. It’s just amazing to observe her wax lyrical of her cheese-making adventure. It’s been 13 years since she started her cheese-making journey and you know what? She’s still in love with the process and enjoys sharing about Filipino-style cheese-making with anyone who is keen to listen.
Embracing Cultural Travel with Carlson Rezidor
Excited about immersing yourself in the culture of the Philippines? A great way is to speak to the people who are trying to make a difference in the way their local produce is perceived. Uncover their heartfelt stories, learn of their challenges and have a taste of their triumphs, literally.
This story features Casa de Cacao in Cebu and Malagos Farmhouse in Davao.
Casa de Cacao
3349 Topaz St., Casals’ Village, Mabolo, Cebu City, Cebu Philippines
Enter the realm of Cebu’s very own Chocolate Queen, Raquel T. Choa at Casa de Cacao. Experience the rich and delightful tradition of indigenous chocolate-making while sampling delightful treats garnished with stories that nourish the heart as well as the soul.
Puentespina Compound, Bolcan Street, Agdao, Davao City, Philippines 8000
Quality artisanal cheeses, made by the Filipino, for the Filipino! Visit Malagos Farmhouse for a cheese tasting experience with Olive Puentespina.
Radisson Blu Cebu
Serging Osmeña Blvd. Corner Juan Luna Ave., Mabolo, Cebu City, Cebu Philippines 6000
When in Cebu, stay in the elegant and iconic 400 room Radisson Blu Cebu, nestled in the heart of the thriving metro and boasting views of Metro Cebu and sparkling sapphire waters of the Mactan Channel. The upper upscale hotel is in the vicinity of historical sites, cultural hotspots, a multitude of restaurants and of course, Casa de Cacao.
Park Inn by Radisson Davao
Asian Highway, 26 J.P. Laurel Ave., Davao City, Philippines 8000
When embarking on an adventure to Davao City, stay in the vibrant Park Inn by Radisson Davao with its cheerful splashes of colour and comfortable amenities. This is the perfect place to return to for a restful nights sleep in comfort after a day of exploring the lush islands and rich heritage of the indigenous tribes that call Mindanao home.
Cebu Pacific Air
This no frills airline is the largest in the Philippines and boasts multiple flights from Singapore to both Cebu and Davao. With cheap domestic flights available for easy travel within the Philippines, consider flying in to Cebu from Singapore on a four hour flight and using it as a gateway to the rest of the Philippine islands. Davao is approximately an hours flight from Cebu and a four hour flight from Singapore.