Year of Grace, Day 196. First fungus foray

Whenever we go for a walk in the nearby woods of Kottenforst, I am ever on the lookout for fungi.  And when I do find one, I am compelled to photograph it. From different angles.  Usually while kneeling so close to the ground to focus on one, I find others nearby. And I have to take photos of those as well. M, who is not a fungus fancier, walks on ahead. And often he finds himself a convenient log or rock to perch on, as I can get very engrossed in fungi, especially at this time of year. It’s been perfect weather for fungi — days of gentle rain, temperatures gradually cooling down, and then … brilliant sunshine!

Here are last Sunday’s finds.

These were a delicate brownish pink, almost hidden among last year’s prickly chestnut husks.

This one was a gorgeous malachite colour.I don’t know if this is related to the one above, as its green is more celadon. What I love about this is that the gills look like the edges of old velum manuscripts.

These round caps are almost indistinguishable from the leaves around them.

This looked to me like a Boletus, but am not  sure.

And this is what its underside looked like. Curiously like a sponge!

And no, I don’t think any of these are edible. But it was fun to have these fungi brightening up the ground.

Year of Grace, Day 195. Traditional sustainable knowledge on Itbayat

Mention the word kaingin to anyone in Metropolitan Manila – even those who have no experience planting even one single seed – and he or she is sure to recoil. I know I used to. The colonial (Spanish and American) attitude to swidden agriculture is so ingrained that this traditional Philippine farming knowledge, developed over millennia of local agricultural experience, is regarded as primitive. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s when ethnoecologist Harold Conklin conducted fieldwork among the Hanunoo in Mindoro and the Ifugao in the Cordillera Mountains that the sound scientific basis of this age-old sustainable highland farming technology first came to light. (M and I had the privilege of meeting Conklin in New Haven in the late 70s; he was M’s linguistics professor at Yale.) Nevertheless, even now, kaingin, also known as slash-and-burn agriculture, continues to have its detractors.

Three conditions dictate this type of traditional farming: steep slopes, high rainfall, and high temperatures. The slopes lead to rapid erosion of topsoil under torrential rains, and the combination of high humidity and high temperatures lead to extremely rapid weathering or degradation of the topsoil. And there’s another, more deleterious effect of almost constant rainfall on tropical soils. And that’s the release of aluminum, silica, and iron oxide minerals from the soil particles, creating extreme acidity, high levels of dissolved aluminum, and unavailable phosphorus, among other minerals – a situation that most crops cannot tolerate.

And through millennia of observation, crop growers in tropical highlands have evolved a way to solve this. How exactly? First by not immediately planting on the same plot that had been planted before. The previously planted ground is allowed to rest (this resting period is called fallow) and rebuild fertility through nature’s own way of nutrient cycling. Any bare ground immediately becomes covered with vegetation, and the dormant seeds of past plants spring to life. Among those are pioneer plants, shrubs and trees that pave the way for others by changing the structure of the soil and, through complex symbiotic interrelationships among the soil microorganisms and the pioneer plants’ root exudations and leaf litter, restocking the soil’s depleted nutrient contents. Once the pioneer vegetation has grown sufficiently to modify soil structure and enrich nutrients –  ideally 10 – 15 years up to 20 – the soil can be prepared for food crops.

But wait – there’s still the low pH or extreme acidity of the soil to contend with. And that’s where burning comes to the rescue. The ashes resulting from the burning of “slash” — as the slashed understorey planting is also called —  increases the pH of the soil, besides killing pest eggs and larvae and harmful disease spores. Controlled properly, the fire does not spread beyond the desired area, and when fallow periods are long enough — ideally up to 20 years — this traditional farming technique is a sustainable and ecologically sound one. Certainly more sustainable than the modern and “scientific” method of continuous application of inorganic chemical fertilizers that kills soil microbiota and renders the soil completely lifeless and its fertility and structure practically irrestorable.  Moreover throughout the fallow period, there are understorey crops to be harvested — fern fronds, edible fungi, medicinal herbs, spices, potherbs. This newly cleared plot can be cropped for three years, after which a fallow period must ensue to allow for natural and sustainable nutrient regeneration.

Okay, now that we’ve established that slash-and-burn isn’t the heinous practice that we’d been led to believe, let’s go on to my kaingin adventure on Itbyat Island, Batanes. I chanced upon a traditional working party preparing for the planting of glutinous red-coloured rice. I love these heritage varieties of vari-coloured rice! So nutritious and health-giving, from their high protein (higher than white rice) and antioxidant content.

Cooperative working groups are still the norm in Itbayat for most labour-intensive activities in the community — house and roof repair, planting, harvesting, community clean-up after a typhoon, and so on. Each family in a village contributes one member, of either gender, to this cooperative work group. In Batan Island however, this practice is no longer as well maintained.As you can see there are trunks left standing and alive even after the burn — not all the trees are cut. The roots of remaining trees serve as anchors that deter topsoil erosion. The largest trunks have been piled at the periphery to serve as protective hedging against wild animals and also to contain any topsoil washed off.

Hoeing precedes sowing.

After sowing, the soil is firmly tamped over the seeds.

Woman settling soil around seeds_1589A rest break is called, and we partake of coconut, fresh from the surrounding trees. There are also seeds of Terminalia catappa, sea almond, to munch onI was privileged to have been given a straw fashioned from bamboo, and a spoon from coconut husk to drink and eat with. There is nothing so refreshing as fresh coconut straight off the tree. Please click on each photo for a larger view.

After tidying up, the work party, including me, was invited for a communal lunch of yellow rice and mung bean stew, served on breadfruit leaves. Superb!

After that hearty lunch, the work party settled their back-baskets and themselves onto hammocks strung from nearby trees for a well-earned siesta.

Year of Grace, Day 194. Craftsmanship in Itbayat

In Itbayat, I loved seeing manual tools like those below still being treasured and used daily, and they took me back to the summer holidays of my childhood with my grandmother in Northern Luzon.

That lad sitting there witnessing the conversion of maize kernels into grits and later sieved to separate the flour, see below, will not have the problem urban children have of not knowing the natural origin of the common foods they eat. I remember a similar mill grinding glutinous rice grains into flour that my grandmother would later turn into delicious snacks. Rice sheaves from the farm would be unravelled and the husk pounded to release the grains on a mortar not too different from the ones below.

Mortar pestle riceI love these Itbayat diving fins. Although the straps are made of synthetic material — lengths from a split garden hose — I appreciate the ingenious repurposing of what would have been something an urban dweller would have consigned nonchalantly to the trash bin.

Diving finsAnd how about this clever coconut crab trap? You can see the crab — it’s still an immature one — approaching the trap.

What I appreciate most of all is the care taken with the fashioning of these items from locally available materials. As is evident in the robust craftsmanship of the axle on this cart.

These clothes pegs and the finely woven baskets they are in are so much more pleasing to look at and use than the plastic ones that urban dwellers have to be contented with. Please click on the photo below for a larger view.

Baskets w pegs

Year of Grace, Day 193. Itbayat Island and I

I’ve been going over photos of a trip made some years ago to the Batanes Islands, and the island that touched me the most was Itbayat, the farthest from Luzon, and the last inhabited northern island of the Philippines. Just a few more kilometers further on by sea is Yami, otherwise known as Orchid Island, which falls within Taiwanese territory and whose original residents sailed from the Batanes more than century or so ago. Now there’s a story worth pursuing… but, I digress.

I’d been warned of the perils of getting to Itbayat. There was the speedy way, which was by plane, but that didn’t take off unless all 12 or so seats were taken. Or… if one were prepared to pay for all unsold seats, there and back.  And, what’s more, no flights unless weather conditions were ideal. In this region, typhoons are a fact of daily life, so chances of making it to the island but being stuck there afterwards were great. Not too bad a prospect, but I had a plane to catch back to Manila.

And there’s the usual way, of course — by falowa, a motorized boat from Batan Island. Sailing on this route is exceedingly rough and choppy, because this is where the West Philippine Sea meets the Pacific Ocean: waves occasionally tower over the falowa and have been known to cause it to capsize.  Sailing time is over 4 hours. But people do it all the time, don’t they, I said. Yes, but…, friends of my host on Batan Island said, there have been horrendous accidents with everyone on board lost within sight of land. A whole family, relatives of these friends. Hmmm… when would I have the opportunity again of such an adventure? Who knows? And the risk of getting who knows what that strikes people of a certain age so they can no longer walk or do adventurous things was equally great. If not greater.  No time like the present… so to adventure then!

The ride itself was pleasant and not as rough as I had been warned about. It was brilliantly sunny, and there were flying fish that skimmed across the waves and the occasional dolphin too. There were bags though, plentiful and conspicuous, to hand for the inevitable. I had prepared myself with chunks of candied ginger that my Batan Island host’s cook had prepared for me: my standard travel sickness remedy. She’d never heard of ginger being used in this way before, nor of sweet ginger either. I described the procedure, and her brilliant ingenuity supplied the rest. I blessed her countless times as I sucked on the candied ginger intermittently throughout the journey. There were no seats — just a flat deck — which was great. Lying down and with the ginger candy, I managed to thoroughly stave off nausea. Other passengers, mostly local, weren’t as fortunate. I believe I was the only tourist on board.

Once there, landing is a bit tricky. There’s the small matter of timing one’s jump to get off. The crew was quite helpful, giving you enough encouragement and the right time to make it across. Now! they said, and you could jump just then, or wait for the next right time to gather up courage and mentally prepare yourself and stiff muscles to make the leap. There’s no rush or pressure. Whenever you’re ready, they said. All this while the baggage is being off-loaded relay style, as you can see — being thrown from boat to land, from one crew person to another and another.  Meanwhile the boat keeps bobbing up and down with the waves, nudging but never quite getting close and then backing off. Occasionally the boat gets carried off too far. Stories of women starting off to jump and never making it haunted me. It’s not that far a leap. Best to overestimate the distance, I thought. And I made it! Another ten or so years, and my knees and/or legs might not have been nimble enough for the task.

As you can see, it’s quite a steep slope up from the boat landing to get into the town of Mayan.

Itbayat is an uplifted coral island, which is why there is no beach. And Mayan town itself is sited in a deep bowl-like depression, protecting its inhabitants and houses from the worst ravages of typhoons. Please click on each photo to enlarge.

Thatched huts valley

The charming taro patch in front of this cottage makes it evident that this is indeed a Pacific Island in the middle of the typhoon belt, had you been in any doubt. Taro and other root crops can survive the damaging winds of typhoons better than fruits on trees.

In the more exposed parts of Itbayat however, construction is more robust — of coral rock.

Coral rock walls

Beyond Itbayat is Siayan Island. Hearing it for the first time, I thought of it spelled as Cheyenne, but of course that was highly unlikely.

The sea, viewed from the cliffs, is an inviting cobalt and turquoise. And there on the horizon is Siayan. And beyond that, way beyond, is Taiwan.

Year of Grace, Day 192. Daybreak in Batanes

It’s been raining steadily here in Bonn for some days now, and if I had any doubts about autumn, well, I haven’t got any now. After all, both August and autumn begin with the same syllable, right? Seriously though, I am cheering myself up with some sunny photos from Batanes.

Daybreak on Batan Island. So lovely to wake up to this idyllic sea- and mountainscape, with the sea reflecting the tints of the early morning sky.

And how about waking to this view from Sabtang Island?

Sabtang Island

Sabtang Island


Sabtang Island

Those have cheered me up enormously. Have a  good, productive Monday, folks!

Year of Grace, Day 191. First heleniums

I’ve always thought of heleniums as autumn plants, though I’d been hoping they would bloom earlier. This is the first time I’ve grown them, and I’d sowed them from seeds last year in the spring. I am so so chuffed they’ve finally bloomed. M calls them satellite plants. Well, there is no doubt in my mind now that August is the beginning of autumn, for the heleniums are just coming into their glory. Oh, they are gorgeous! There are some darker ones coming up, and I am all excited about those as well. Please click on each photo for a larger view.

Year of Grace, Day 190. Encounters with mabolo in Batanes and elsewhere

One fruit that I delighted in seeing in Batanes, on Batan Island to be precise, was mabolo (Diospyros blancoi). I hadn’t eaten this since childhood, and seeing it transported me back in time. It’s not a fruit that is sold in shops, perhaps because it doesn’t travel or store well. It’s the kind of fruit that one only gets directly off a tree, ready to eat, and usually it’s someone else’s tree, as it’s not a tree one finds in home gardens in the city. My grandmother Bonifacia is the only family member I know who had one such tree, right by a well, but that was in Santiago, Ilocos Sur.  And the mabolo from that tree was the first and only time in my life that I had ever tasted it, that is, until Batanes. Once tasted, never forgotten. It is extraordinarily memorable.

On Batan Island, in the town of Mahatao, by chance I passed by a house with a fruiting mabolo tree. I should correct myself. Only the fruits are called mabolo. The tree itself is known as kamagong; it was my second brother who had passed on that bit of botanical trivia back in the day, in reference to a choice yoyo he was playing with. It was small, much smaller than the usual, dark, almost black, and highly polished, and of a convex shape so that the yoyo looked almost like a complete miniature globe in profile. He said with great pride that it was made of kamagong — the best for unbeatable yoyos. Although native to the Philippines, the kamagong tree is now rare and endangered. So much of it has been so sought after for furniture that very little remains, alas. (Why weren’t more of them planted for replacement, I wonder? It’s not too late to do so, is it?)

Anyhow back to Batanes. I remarked on how wonderful the fruits were, up in the tree, and took a photo. Rather fuzzy I’m afraid, as my companions had gone way ahead, and I was in a rush to catch up. So if you don’t mind, I won’t share that doozy with you. Imagine then my surprise and delight when these lovelies were delivered to my lodgings. I was so touched.  This was the first of many such instances during my Batanes trip that I would be the beneficiary of such acts of kindness: Mahatao folk in particular and the Ivatans in general are exceedingly thoughtful and generous.  Now aren’t these mabolo totally fetching in their fuzzy velvetiness? I was tempted to hug them and nuzzle them.Mabolo fruits Their fuzzy coats remind me of peach skin, and their warm enticing scent is somewhat reminiscent of that of a peach. But mabolo fruits have so much more ummph. In shape, the  remaining calyx at the stalk rather resembles that of a persimmon: unsurprising as both belong to the same family.

Mabolo flesh is so silky, it just melts in the mouth. When was the first or last time you’d tasted a mabolo?Amazingly, there are some who regard this lovely mabolo scent as offensive, likening it to cat poo (caca de chat). Curious!

Years later, I would have another surprising encounter with mabolo, this time in the province of Nueva Vizcaya, at the Santa Fe municipal market on a Saturday, the usual market day.Veg mabolo sellers Sta Fe croppedThese ladies were the only ones I spotted selling mabolo. I wasn’t even expecting them here, to be honest. I was just checking the market to see what exotica I would find — something I customarily do wherever in the world I happen to be.

There were only four mabolo, here being weighed. If you look carefully, there is a bunch of wild watercress to the right of the spring onions — a rare sight in a Philippine rural market. Watercress grows plentifully along the cold, clear streams and rivers of Santa Fe and Imugan village, much higher up, at 1000 meters above sea level. When I asked why there weren’t more of them, the woman said, no one really likes them. What?! Why? I said I adore them, a nostalgic fruit from my childhood. My children don’t like them, she went on. They say it stinks, nabangsit kano.

There is no accounting for taste, indeed.

Year of Grace, Day 189. Origami flower and other unique Batanes flora

Can anyone identify this? I’ve dubbed it origami flower because it does look like someone had folded it into four lobes. Origami flwr croppedThis is a member of the ginger family, but beyond that, I can only guess at its species. Could it be Alpinia zerumbet?

GingiberaceaeIts fruits and seeds vaguely resemble some spices like cardamom.Gingiber fruit openHere are a few more unknown-to-me beauties.

What a surprise they are inside!

Brown shell fruit open cropped I’ve not seen these plants anywhere else. Fascinating! I’d really appreciate knowing what these plants are, and if they have any interesting uses.

Year of Grace, Day 188. Tipuho — Batanes breadfruit

Although breadfruit is commonly eaten throughout the Pacific islands, I’ve only ever eaten it as a sweet, that is, in candied form, and it was usually made from rimas, Artocarpus altilis, the usual variety eaten in Manila.  In Batanes, there is a different species of breadfruit that is often enjoyed in savoury dishes. It’s known as tipuho in Batan Island, or chipuho in Itbayat.

Tipuho differs from rimas in that its leaves are whole, unlike the deeply dissected ones of rimas. Tipuho leaves are glossy and handsome, and are most commonly used to lay food on, or to wrap food in.

I love this Batanes specialty, yellow rice, coloured thus with fresh turmeric root, which imparts its own subtle, slightly gingery flavour. Not surprising as turmeric is related to ginger. The tipuho leaf on which it is laid makes this celebratory dish even more so and the yellow against the rich green is so appetizing.

I encountered tipuho again as a convenient food carrier.Camote chips on leaf croppedThe high latex content of the leaf keeps food — here, sweet potato fritters  — from spoiling and drying out. The fritters were made and wrapped by Eling, the gracious lady in whose house I ate; I stayed in the house across from hers (she had a full house), as in 2008 there were as yet no commercial accommodations in Itbayat. These scrumptious fritters were my lunch on the exceedingly rough 4-hour boat trip from Itbayat, the furthest inhabited island of the Philippines, back to Batan, the principal island of the Batanes group. On Itbayat, most people often carried their lunch elegantly wrapped thus. It reminded me of a similar Japanese tradition of wrapping food aesthetically with leaves.

Breadfruit tree w fruitsHere is the tree itself. Elmer Merrill, a botanist who surveyed Philippine flora during the American occupation (1988-1946), classified tipuho as Artocarpus blancoi. However he noted that it was not edible.

Here is a young, very ornamental tipuho tree on Itbayat Island. Some of the lower leaves have a few lobes, but the upper ones are undissected and entirely whole.

Tipuho fruits are evidently edible, as they are commonly sold as a food ingredient, often ready to use. And here are the tipuho fruits, whole, halved, and sold, already peeled and sliced, in bags. I bought a bag, ever curious about exotic food ingredients — I did not know then it was tipuho. Next to them are huge taro corms, which were recognizable as such, though much, much larger than the common taro from Luzon. These are perhaps Cyrtosperma species.

Here are the tipuho ready for slicing into bite-sized pieces, and off they go into a pot. The reddish orange segments call to mind their resemblance to the yellow ones of jackfruit (Artocarpus communis), a relative. Here they are being braised in coconut milk. The seeds are equally edible and taste nutty, rather like chestnuts.Later, when the tipuho was tender, slices of dried mahi mahi or dorado, known as arayu in the Ivatan language, were added. A first for me and it was superb!

I’ve been trying to ascertain tipuho’s scientific name, but only came across textual descriptions, no clear illustrations of the fruit, on Google. Websites devoted  to breadfruit are mainly of botanical, not gastronomic, interest, and show illustrations only of the tree or dried leaves. The most I could come up with is that tipuho is most likely descended from Artocarpus mariannensis, whose centre of origin is the Marianas Islands and grows wild on limestone and coral islands, mainly spread by fruit bats. Perhaps tipuho is a cross of A. mariannensis with rimas. None of the textual descriptions refer to reddish orange segments however; only to cream or yellow fruit segments. I would be grateful if someone were to enlighten me.

Different varieties of breadfruit are being promoted as a crop for food security as yields can reach from 5 to 10 tons per hectare. Quite competitive with cereal crops. And care and maintenance is minimal, unlike rice, and few pests and diseases. Pacific Islanders, who once relied on it as a staple, attribute their laid-back attitude to life to its ease of cultivation. It stores well too without refrigeration. Fermented, it lasts for months; dried, it can last for a year. The nuts can be dried and made into flour. There is definitely a lot of promise in this fruit tree, whose other uses are for glue (from its natural latex) and its trunk as building material for houses and canoes.