Monday, October 18, 2010

I Ate Lechon Five Times and Lived to Tell the Story of Bale Dutung

n.b.: I wrote this piece several months ago. Then, somebody asked me to submit it a travel magazine, requesting me not to post it on my blog before publication. Now, I'm finally allowed to post it on my blog.

My Bale Dutung story started a few years ago when I first heard about it from a friend. Like rumors of a magic island, the stories told of a rustic, art-filled, awesome place in Angeles, Pampanga, a place where one dines on culinary wonders whipped up by food columnist, artist,and chef Claude Tayag, a place where only a few can enter. One can’t just go alone; a party of at least ten is required. You also need to reserve way in advance. Because the owners do this only once or twice a month. If at all. If they’re not busy traipsing around the country or the world, sampling gourmet delicacies and exotic street grub. And you need to break the bank and bring enough cash, about P1,800 per person. More if you’re buying pasalubongs and copies of their books.

I knew I had to try this place. But organizing a trip seemed like a complicated, expensive production number.

Through the years, I’ve read articles and blog posts about Bale Dutung, seen pictures, heard more stories; and my desire to visit grew. Then I read Claude Tayag’s book, Food Tour, a delectable compilation of stories of food, culture, travel, and art. And I knew I wanted to meet Claude Tayag, who has made a career of doing the things I love to do. And I really had to visit this place. Watching Claude serve Tony Bourdain an extremely telegenic rendition of kare-kare, I resolved to make this pipedream happen.

And as proof that dreams still happen, we finally had our Bale Dutung experience. After a flurry of email and text exchanges with our hostess, Mary Anne Tayag, a group of 14 friends and family members trooped to Angeles on a drizzly Sunday morning.

We entered a gated subdivision that did nothing to prepare us for the surprise of entering a place that seemed more likely to be found by the foot of a mountain, by the edge of a rainforest, or somewhere remote and slightly magical. A big pond surrounded by outdoor art pieces greeted us. We walked around taking it all in, and then a lovely lady appeared, serving us a welcome drink spiked with muscovado ice.
The lovely lady was Mary Anne Tayag, who has elevated party hosting to an art form. She tried to memorize all our names and almost succeeded. What she did succeed in doing is making our Bale Dutung experience one of the best dining stories of our lives.

Before the pigfest ensued, the chef came out of the kitchen dressed in a crisp white shirt and batik pants. He explained that Bale Dutung means House of Wood. Claude regaled us with the story of the house – the story of how he built it from scratch and from scrap.

He explained the long, painstaking process of gathering recycled materials from old churches and structures damaged by the Pinatubo eruption and subsequent lahar catastrophe.

He talked about his collections of antique kitchen implements and how they opened their home cum gallery cum dining wonderland to people who appreciate good food and good art.

He then left us to do his magic in the kitchen, and Mary Anne took the helm in the dining room. Also dressed in casual ethnic chic, she was the epitome of the stylish, gracious host that I want to be when I grow up.

The appetizers were not even on the menu we agreed on. Just some of the many pleasant surprises in store for us that day; my favorite surprise was the refreshing face towels dipped in baby cologne and frozen overnight; such a thoughtful detail for guests who've traveled far to get there.

The meal began with crackers served with a trio of dips: Taba ng Talangka, Balo Balo, and Pesto. We attacked this first dish so voraciously the servers had to wrestle the dip bowls away from us to ensure we didn’t stuff ourselves prematurely.

Because as we were soon to discover, the degustation that was about to follow was going to stretch our stomachs to the limits.The next course was another off-the-menu surprise. A sotanghon dish that belied the accusation that carbs are heavy. Barely there vinaigrette dressing made this a light, refreshing starter. More starters were served. The Ensaladang Pako was the first dish that was part of the official menu. Mary Anne told us that the now-fashionable pako(fiddlehead fern) was actually ordinary fare, growing profusely in every home garden, usually served to the household help.

The Inasal na Manok was served with a tiny scoop of Claude 9 Talangka Rice. This was followed by the Piniritong Lumpiang Ubod, its flavor made interesting by the mustasa leaf wrappers and the Claude 9 Oriental Sauce. Another surprise dish, the talangka topped sushi ended the round of starters. We felt pretty satisfied by then. Our appetites were whet for the feast. But we had no idea that so much more food was in store.

We chose the menu that included Lechon served in 5 different ways. The first way was the more traditional serving of the lechon skin. It was a little embarrassing how our carnivorous family assaulted the golden red skin. Crispy perfection as it should be. It was served with an unbelievably good liver sauce that would have been a tad too sweet if not for the generous amount of garlic slices.
When the pig has been stripped of its epidermis, the rest of the gorgeous carcass was carted off for the next porky installments.
Second way: Fried Lechon Flakes na Binalot sa Tortilla. Basil leaves and kimchi make this a more sophisticated, zestier variation of the pritchon. By this time, we were feeling the tightening of our jeans, and we were surprised that we were just about to have soup. The sinigang featured the lechon’s third incarnation.
It was a tough decision to make, but I eventually decided that way 4 was my favorite. Inihaw na Tadyang na Lechon served with Ensaladang Talong – it sounds as good as it tasted. It’s very hard to find words to describe the dishes and the experience because at about this time, our brains could no longer focus on the verbal as every vital organ was focused on properly digesting this amazing, and not yet finished, meal. The wine, which they allowed us to bring in with no corkage fee, had nothing to do with the dazed out, intoxicated feeling. We were drunk on food. And the beauty of our surroundings. And the entertaining stories.

And that little pig still had one more number for us. I swear to you – I am one with an almost finite appetite, teased by my friends for having an esophagus that reached up to my knees. But I met the feast that could forever ruin my reputation as a gourmand. I was so full I just let the fifth way, the Inasadong Pata ng Lechon, glide through my tongue just so I can taste the flavor.

We were so stuffed we were relieved when they called a break from the eating. This time, we would feast our eyes and our souls as we toured Bale Dutung. This place provides more than just eye candy. Art, antiques, a dash of kitsch, and even more stories made us forget about food for a moment. I am amazed at Claude and Mary Anne’s graciousness for opening their homes to us, entertaining us, and giving us so much more than what was promised and expected.

The tour burnt enough calories to clear some space for dessert, old-fashioned coffee, and pandan tea. A medley of macapuno, ube, yema, and carabao’s milk, Paradiso was truly paradise for the taste buds. And Mary Anne capped the meal with another surprise dish, the Tibok Tibok, a pudding made of carabao’s milk.

Yes, I ate lechon in 5 ways. And I survived to tell you this story and to tell you that Bale Dutung should be in every foodie’s bucket list.


Anonymous said...

reading your post has made me nostalgic over the days i used to eat lechon. at least I got to try the 5-ways before i converted, haha.

if ever i start craving lechon again, i will just read your post and it will be as if i am eating the real thing.