MANILA, DECEMBER 22, 2010 (MALAYA) BY DENNIS GADIL - NARVACAN’S new generation of leaders is banking on the town’s culinary past to bring in more tourists and re-claim its position as the birthplace of "bagnet," the delicacy that is famous all over Ilokandia.

During its week-long fiesta celebration early this month, the town leaders staged an elaborate "coming out" party to announce Narvacan’s emergence as an eco-tourism destination with its first "Bagnet Festival" as springboard.

Town officials led by its 33-year old mayor, Zuriel Zaragoza, said bagnet-making has its origins in Narvacan, Ilocos Sur, and the town is now formally laying claim to such historical distinction.

Every Narvacan household still holds the secret to the special technique of preparing the most crispy and mouth-watering bagnet that has eluded the taste buds of other Ilocos towns which are also into bagnet production.

"Every household knows how to make bagnet. The best tasting bagnet is produced in Narvacan," Zaragoza said.

To further bolster the town’s claim to the bagnet throne, the Narvacan municipal council has secured the nod of the regional offices of the Department of Tourism (DOT) and Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to declare bagnet as the town’s prime economic product under the One Town, One Product (OTOP) program.

"This way, no one could copy or lay claim to bagnet as their prime product. We now have some sort of an exclusive franchise to bagnet as an OTOP product," the mayor said.

"If Vigan has its heritage sites, Narvacan has its Bagnet Festival," he added.

The town council has passed a resolution declaring Narvacan’s annual fiesta celebration as "Bagnet Festival."

For its inaugural celebration, nine floats paraded across the town, with bagnet as the central theme and a sprinkling of the town’s agricultural produce as side decorations.

Every bagnet float was accompanied by a group of young street dancers garbed in colorful costumes. Two grand prizes were up for grabs, the best bagnet float and the best dance group.

In the days leading to the festival, various contests were also held – from group dancing to culinary competition.

Town old-timers said bagnet-making has waned through the years, with fewer families taking up the culinary task to continue the tradition.

Zaragoza disclosed that only about 100 families out of the 50,000 population are engaged in bagnet production as more Ilocos towns have also jumped into the bagnet bandwagon.

"The market for bagnet is very small. (And) many other Ilocos towns are also producing it," he said.

The town mayor, however, said they hope that with the annual staging of Narvacan Bagnet Festival "we can make a special niche."

"It’s time to make our product more presentable and competitive because this is where it originated," he said.

The mayor said the town council also voted to create a special office that would monitor the production of bagnet to guarantee its quality and cleanliness.

"We have to be responsible for our product. And rest assured, there’s no ‘bocha’ in our bagnet," Zaragoza said.

Bagnet is basically a pork delicacy prepared in the tradition of chicharon-making. It is prepared by allowing a fresh slab of pork to boil in a mixture of oil and water until it becomes crispy and little bubbles erupt from the pork skin. No seasoning or extenders like salt, soy sauce, pepper or garlic are needed.

When served, cooked bagnet is similar to the meat of "lechon," only with a much crispier skin.

The team of Mauro and Rosenda Corrales is among the 100 families who continue with the bagnet-making tradition.

The husband and wife team said one session of bagnet-making yields at least 150 kilos of crispy and delicious bagnet that they sell in the town market and deliver to nearby towns like Vigan, Candon, San Fernando in La Union and as far as Manila .

Mauro said they ordinarily slaughter seven pigs to meet a day’s demand.

The bagnet is cooked in a giant "kawa" with wood logs serving as fuel.

Mauro said fesh pork meat is boiled in oil and water for about three hours until the water evaporates and only the oil from the pork is left. The Corrales couple does not use cooking oil but lard left from previous cooking sessions.

As tiny bubbles appear on the skin of the bagnet, workers fish out the delicacy from the "kawa" and put it aside.

The oil left on the giant cooking pan is once again heated up and the bagnet that was earlier fished out is returned until the tiny bubbles from the pig skin expand.

Mauro said such technique drains the pork meat of its excess fat and makes it more tender and succulent.

Bagnet has less cholesterol compared to ‘lechon" or fried pork meat.

He said the technique is specific to Narvacan. Other towns usually boil the pork in water then fry it in oil.

A kilo of newly-cooked bagnet of about two big slices sells for P350 per kilo. Prices could go as high as P600 in Manila .High demand for bagnet starts during the Christmas season and lasts until June. Lean months are during the rainy season when prices of bagnet could go down as low as P200 per kilo.

A bagnet could have a shelf life of at least a month.

Nestled between the sea and mountains, Narvacan is six hours by land from Manila. From Laoag, which is an hour flight from Manila, it Narvacan is a two-hour drive by land.

Zaragoza said the Bagnet Festival is just one of Narvacan’s big plans during his incumbency.

"The festival is timely since the municipality is gearing up to develop its tourism industry," he said.

The town is earmarking at least P100 million in the next three years to develop tourist infrastructure. It is sprucing up its three-kilometer long shoreline with a boardwalk lined with business establishments.

Zaragoza said camping sites would also be installed around the town’s caves and waterfalls to lure in eco-tourism adventurers.

The town’s more affluent residents who are now living abroad have also expressed interest in pouring investments into Narvacan like building lodging houses, cottages and resorts.

The mayor, who succeeded his parents in running the town, made a trip to Hawaii and California early this year to sell his tourism investment plan to US-based Narvacaneos.

The regional office of the DOT has given its green light for a training-seminar of Narvacan’s future tourist guides.

Next year, a bigger and better Bagnet Festival hosted by Narvacan is being cooked up by holding the first ever region-wide Bagnet Festival Challenge that will be participated in by Ilocos Sur, Ilocos Norte, La Union and Pangasinan.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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