WHEN Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan accidentally landed on Philippine soil, he was actually in the hunt for Moluccas in Indonesia, popularly known as Spice Islands. Little did he know that just above Cebu, where he met his end, is Bicol peninsula, which is known for its spicy cuisine due to the pepper plantations that abound and the volcanic nature of its soil.
Had he landed in our own version of Spice Islands, history as we know it would have taken a different turn. With or without Magellan, one thing is definite though: Bicol’s spicy dishes will be here to stay to provide the proverbial spice of life to every traveler or food tripper.
In the heartland of the Bicolandia is Albay, home of the perfect-coned Mayon Volcano, the region’s iconic landmark. In recent years, Gov. Joey S. Salceda has embarked on a culinary tourism dubbed “Culinaria Albay” to put the spotlight on the exciting signature dishes which have been an integral part of the total travel experience.
If there is any indication that this culinary tourism thrust is spreading wildfire, Culinaria got raves from global chefs in the recent Madrid Fusion held in Manila. Salceda and Albay tourism officials can’t just wait for its next edition in 2016 to bask in the spotlight of the elite Spain-based food expo.
Dining in Albay is an adventure in itself because of the surprises that unassuming restaurants spring out to delight the traveler. Aside from the omnipresent pepper, most of the region’s dishes are awash with gata or coconut milk, whether be it meat, fish or vegetable.
Savor the Bicol express, laing, pinangat, kinunot, cocido and fusion food to literally spice up your dining experience while swinging in Albay, beginning in the capital city of Legazpi.
Just like a “sweet 16” girl, Small Talk Café continues to charm guests ever since it started ticking the palate of the Bicolanos in 1999. An old house-turned-resto in the heart of Legazpi, this quaint dining place is sought for its regional cuisine, Bicol-flavored pasta and pizza, as well as all-time Filipino favorites.
A new dining outlet which became an almost overnight sensation is First Colonial Grill whose claim to fame is the sili ice cream, which has a spicy biting after-taste you will keep coming back to. It has three levels of spice, where diners are challenged to level up on their threshold every visit. Due to its smash hit, it has added new ice cream variants, such as pili, coffee, malunggay and halaya, which can beat the famous brands in its own turf.
In addition to the now-legendary ice cream, First Colonial Grill is also known for its extensive menu of native dishes and fusion food. Its main store is in Daraga town, and has a branch at the Gaisano Pacific Mall in Legazpi.
Adjacent its main resto is Bicol Blends Café where you can cap your meal with local-themed coffees, shakes and pastries laden with the pili, a versatile homegrown nut akin to the almond.
For something close to fine dining, there is Ysabelle’s, which takes pride in its cozy ambiance and delectable selection ranging from local to international. Its best seller is the Albay’s Best in a Platter, which consists of the best produce of the province, which includes Polangui Sinarapan Pandan Rice, Albay Special Bicol Express, Guinobatan Longganisa, Sorsogon Assorted Grilled Seafoods, Camalig Special Pinangat and Crispy Fried Tilapia.
Good for five to seven persons, the platter comes with one pitcher drink and unlimited steamed rice. Ysabelle’s also has imported tea flavors for winding down after a hearty meal.
The hilltop The Oriental Hotel, arguably the best in Albay, offers first-rate amenities and international cuisine which can be at par with Manila’s standards. Its Jasmine Café has jazzed-up traditional dishes and to tickle the palate of any nationality because of the frequent arrival of foreign guests.
Among its trademark dishes are the Prawn Pinangat, Bagnet a la Bikolana, and the Deconstructed Bicol Express which puns a fresh twist to the typical Bicolano plate. The Oriental had the honor of serving lunch to Queen Sophia of Spain when she visited the city in 2013, with Callos (beef tripe) and Paella Valenciana, among other specialties.
Dining experience is enhanced with the unobstructed and breath-taking view of the perfect-coned Mayon Volcano, which can be vividly seen day and night.
Camalig, the province’s heritage town, is known for the pinangat which is made up of shredded gabi (taro) leaves, red ginger, balaw (tiny shrimps) or a slice of salted fish or pork and crushed pepper.
Thousands of servings of pinangat roll out of the stores daily to find their way around the region, Metro Manila and overseas where there are Bicolano communities who miss this childhood delicacy.
One hole-in-the-wall resto which made it to Culinaria Albay’s prestigious listing is Rose G Bicol Cuisine along Camalig town proper. It may appear to be a nondescript eatery, but wait until its chef Jang Grageda whips out her arsenal of mouthwatering appetizers, main courses, shakes and desserts which will throw your diet out of the window.
Its most-requested dishes are the Adobo de Camalig, Picadillo sa Kulis Maloko, Mango Bicol Express, while for desserts, Pili Pulp Ice Cream and Bayukbok. For drinks, Grageda has concocted the Lemonada ni Gilay, a refreshing shake of freshly picked calamansi, chilis, mint leaves and starfruit.
Further up north is the town of Guinobatan, which cooks, perhaps, the tastiest version of longganisa (pork sausage) in this part of the archipelago. The native bahay kubo-themed Yangmatt Eatery is where you can find this popular Pinoy breakfast mainstay.
Its other topsellers are crispy liempo, native lechon and kinunot na manok, which consists of coconut milk, malunggay leaves and the indispensable chili. Due to insistent public demand to bring it to the heart of the culinary journey, Yangmatt recently opened its branch in Legazpi City beside the Aquinas Hospital.
Whew, this Culinaria Albay. So abundant food to feast on. So little time.