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

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Sabtang Island

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

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 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.

Year of Grace, Day 187. Unlikely Philippine cottages

Some years ago I finally made it to Batanes, the most northerly of the Philippines’ 7,100 islands, having dreamed of them since childhood. These islands and their culture are quite different from the rest of the country. The thatched cottages, built to withstand interminable battering from typhoons, are nothing like the customary ones in Luzon. The walls are built of cobbles — of which there are plenty on the beaches, apparently thrown up by past volcanic eruptions — and set with limestone-based mortar. Some of the historic buildings, such as a  church dating back more than 3 centuries, have walls so robustly set that restorers have had difficulty prying the foundation cobbles apart, even with modern tools. The knack of making such enduring mortar has been lost to local builders; perhaps the secret may still be found in Europe.

This charming cottage seems straight out of a British countryside — Cornwall perhaps or Devon. Minus the exotic palm of course (though in some sheltered parts of Cornwall, protected by the warm Gulf Stream, there are magnificent gardens with subtropical plants).

Who wouldn’t be tempted to have these splendid cobbles or boulders for a wall? Nowadays these are protected.

Boulders sunrise

This wall, from one of the oldest houses, has what look like fossils. Continue reading