MANILA, December 19, 2003 (STAR) TURO-TURO By Claude Tayag - Christmas season is like no other, what with the entire world celebrating. And us Filipinos who are exagerado by nature, will just overdo anything. I remember a foreigner friend of mine telling me that in our dear country, we celebrate Christmas 10 days ahead of the rest of the world. A Makati-based businessman, he said that (un)officially, our Christmas begins from the December 15 payday. Practically no work gets done from that day on. Work is the last thing on people’s minds. They are simply preoccupied with their shopping lists and series of Christmas parties.

"What awes me is why all the other departments are invited to every department’s office party. With so many departments, some parties are held after Christmas Day. And no one seems to care. The government offices are worse. On my first year here, I learned that Bundy clocks stop working from December 1. Try securing government permits or papers in December and you will be told to come back the following year," he said with much amusement.

That’s us. We love to overkill. Look at our exaggerated noche buenas and the justification that we can eat to our hearts’ content because Christmas comes only once a year and the season calls for it. We have all the flimsy excuses to get together and party. And always without fail, it will be food – and booze – galore. And that is why there is no Christmas like ours. Pinoys overseas get misty-eyed when they cannot come home for the Christmas holidays.

Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit

Even the five-star hotels in the metropolis are no exception. Not only do they start early with their Christmas decor and promotions, they also try to outdo each other. Just last December 13, Mary Ann and I were fortunate enough to witness the Christmas concert at the Peninsula Manila. The Yuletide season couldn’t have been ushered in in a grander fashion than this.

In its 20th year tradition of caroling, the Pen offered the public this much-awaited free concert with none other than the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra (under the baton of Ruggero Barbieri), with guest singers Kyla, the Loboc Children’s Choir (fresh from their feat at the Voices of the World competition held in Barcelona last September) and the Chorus Philippines. They wowed the public with some classical numbers by Strauss and Tschaikowsky, and such Filipino favorites as Ang Pasko ay Sumapit, Ryan Cayabyab’s Kumukuti-kutitap, J.Brandy’s Mano Po Ninong, L. Celerio’s Pasko Na Naman.

Since seating was on a first-come, first served basis, the lobby seats were all taken as early as 3 p.m. that day, occupied by the advanced parties (yayas), reserving the seats for their respective masters for the 5 p.m. concert. Just as the concert was about to start, the lobby was packed to SRO capacity, (with the gallery and upper lobby also full). The grand lobby of the Pen was so opulently decorated for the occasion, with a towering 40-foot Christmas tree laden with shopping bags of donors for the hotel’s ongoing charity silent auction. Without a doubt, the Pen has the grandest and most luxurious lobby, not to mention its impeccable service and food offerings, among the five-star hotels in Metro Manila, in the tradition of a bygone era of the old Manila Hotel during its glorious days.

A special merienda menu was offered the well-heeled crowd, consisting of a choice of fresh lupiang ubod, smoked salmon and tanguingue. For the figure-conscious, there was a platter of fresh tropical fruits in season. For those who missed the concert, the Loboc Children’s Choir will perform again tomorrow, Dec. 19 at 5 p.m.

Intercon’s Foie Gras Promo

Still with the Christmas indulgences, we had lunch at Prince Albert Rotisserie on the first day of its foie gras promotion, which is ongoing until Dec. 23. Now in its third year, this to-die-for degustacion is eagerly awaited by chef Cyrille Soenen’s legion of fans and loyal customers. Chef Cyrille is known for his classical French and adventurous cuisine.

In France, as Christmas approaches, the halls of supermarkets and delicatessens are decked with mountains of the prized tins of foie gras and patés made from the fattened livers of duck or goose, just as we have our Dutch queso de bolas, chestnuts and grapes in our supermarkets. What would the most awaited feast of the year be without this highly revered delicacy, the ultimate treat for any gastronome?

Goose or duck liver is grossly enlarged by methodically fattening the bird. The force-feeding of geese was done as early as Roman times (they used figs for this). Newly harvested liver was plunged into a bath of milk and honey, making it swell and enhancing its flavor. Nowadays the birds are fattened with corn; each liver could weigh between 700 and 900 grams for geese, and 300-400 grams for ducks. Goose foie gras ranges from ivory white to pink in color, soft and creamy to firm in consistency. It has a rich buttery taste owing to the birds’ special corn diet.

In the past, one can only find this delectable delicacy in fine dining restaurants of five-star hotels in Manila. But for the past two or three years, it has become quite a favorite of Manila’s chichi crowd. It is now a standard fare in most non-hotel fine dining restaurants. It’s so popular that it is readily available at Santi’s and Terry’s, that serving foie gras at home for special occasions (and to impress) has become de rigueur.

Joining us for lunch was Jenny Peña, Intercon’s PR director, and CJ Juntereal of the Manila Standard. Chef Cyrille didn’t prepare a special set for us, but made us choose from the special promo menu, which in the end gave us more choices, a lot more to try to our hearts’ content. Between the four of us, we got to try all the seven dishes offered! (either sharing or half-portions), including several excellent wine pairings. As expected, chef Cyrille outdid himself with many interesting new concoctions like the checkerboard terrine of duck liver and duck breast (magret), smoked duck liver with lentils and atchara, or duck liver with cepes mushroom pasta (shaped like mini croissants) and chicken boudins (small sausages), or the unforgettable roasted whole duck liver wrapped in suha (pomelo) leaves and served with suha candy.

It was a feast fit for the three kings.

Fresh Oysters At Via Mare

Even Rockwell’s Via Mare Oyster Bar owners Joseph and Isabel Ong were in a mood to party. In its third-year run, the Oyster Bar treated its loyal customers to what else but plates and plates of the freshest oysters and free-flowing wine, among others. Via Mare is Mary Ann’s and my favorite place for oysters. They are flown in daily from Aklan, a variety which are medium in size and not so creamy but just right. I like them best raw, taken with a squeeze of fresh lemon and a dash of Tabasco. The baked ones, are just as great: Parmesan (and garlic butter), Rockefeller (spinach, bacon and parmesan), Boursin (cream cheese, garlic and herbs), Manhattan (bacon, mushrooms and paprika) and Victor (sour cream, horseradish and parmesen). All these years we’ve been going to any of Via Mare’s several outlets, Glenda Barretto has made no compromises – the oysters are consistently very fresh and succulent, and we can’t seem to have enough of them.

As we were about to leave the party, which lasted till the wee hours, we got waylaid by the aroma of fresh bibingka and puto bumbong, baking right next door – Via Mare’s twin outlet Cafe Via Mare. We just couldn’t resist having a bite of this ever-popular Via Mare delicacy. One, rather, two for the road before we headed for home!

By the way, have you ever tried its pinalutong na binagoongan baboy (crispy pork belly topped with shrimp bagoong)? It’s one of my fave comfort foods, and nobody but nobody does it better than Via Mare. It’s served with a generous portion of lechon kawali (with its skin so crisp and bubbly while the meat remains moist and tender), homemade bagoong salted just right, and steam pinakbet-mix veggies. We crossed over to The Landmark from our shop at Greenbelt 3 – Via Mare’s other outlet is located on the second floor of this humongous department store. It’s one of the dishes I crave for every now and then, and its accessibility makes it an easy target whenever I go hungry. Café Via Mare also serves other comfort foods most Pinoys pine for: Tuyo, adobo flakes, arroz caldo, sotanghon, pancit luglog, dinuguan at puto, and ofcourse its perennial bestseller bibingka and puto bumbong.

Happy (eating) holidays!

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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