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Life In The Bundoks: How 2020 Had Us Running To The Hills

Life In The Bundoks: How 2020 Had Us Running To The Hills

Luxury | February 15, 2021
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It used to be that weekend homes, as the term suggests, were used only for off days or holidays. In my BC (before Covid) life, the majority of my time was spent in the city center. Here, everything was within arms reach–offices, cafés, schools, hospitals, restaurants, shops, and other commercial establishments. Life, as far as urban folk were concerned, happened only in the center. Before 2020, easy access and central location were currency.

Silent In The City

That the pandemic has drastically and dramatically changed the way we live is the understatement of the century. After months of working from home, it finally dawned on me that there was no point in living close to offices or commercial centers. Everything had become accessible through reliable Internet connection. 

It was after being on lockdown in our weekend home in Tagaytay that I slowly began to discover the viability of life in the bundoks. For a while, I felt like I was missing out on all that was happening in Manila. This included seeing friends, going to restaurants and bars, shopping, stepping out for coffee, and working out at my favorite studios.

Truth revealed itself when ECQ was finally lifted and I returned to my shoebox of an apartment. Streets once bustling until the late hours of the evening had become eerily empty. Malls and regular weekend hubs, albeit having opened at limited capacity, felt seeped in fear and terror. Manila, just like all other cities across the globe, had been silenced by the pandemic.

The Mountain Migration

Only a week after re-establishing myself in the city, I once again packed my bags and headed back to Tagaytay. I was ready to trade in air-conditioning for the cool, crisp mountain breeze. Leaving compact living spaces for outdoor areas (where my two high-powered dogs, chickens, and colorful blooms play all day) was an easy choice, too. Frozen ingredients and take out food had suddenly lost their appeal. I was missing the fresh premium ingredients of the provincial markets and the open-air spaces of well-kept dining secrets in Tagaytay.

Close friends and members of the immediate family have also expressed a preference for reconnecting outside of the city capital. They would rather drive out for safe, socially-distanced brunch, sunset cocktails, and dinner under the stars. “We can stay outdoors and there is enough room for social distancing. It feels safer,” said a recent guest. “It’s also a refreshing break from the city where you can really feel the fear.”

Making Memories in the Bundoks

In our mountain ridge home, first-time guests are treated to our signature Arroz Caldo Buffet. It was inspired by the all-day spread of the Philippine Airlines Lounge, but with more homemade goodness. Surrounding a warm pot of porridge are toppers that include: century egg, red egg, tawilis (herring), adobo flakes, tokwa’t baboy (tofu and pork sautéed in onions with special sauce), garlic flakes, fresh onion leeks, just to name a few. In an era when travel is either limited or restricted, flavors reminiscent of the jet-set experience could just as well be the next best thing. Close friends who have spent several weekends with us comment, “There is nothing pretentious about it. It’s simple, delicious, and makes you feel at home.”

The highlight of these intimate gatherings of up to four guests is the panoramic views. On crisp, sunny days, we set up on the balcony of the main house, which looks out to the Taal lake. Luis Espiritu, a close friend, and mentor, once commented: “Nothing is better than having special pinoy breakfast of home-cooked mini buffet chicken arroz caldo matched with freshly brewed Batangas coffee, the cold breeze of Tagaytay in January, and panoramic views of Taal volcano.” It is a picturesque sight that never fails to leave one in awe. Apart from the breakfast special, this view has also been the ideal background for a Filipino feast of all-time favorites laid out on banana leaves and hand-woven placements from Benguet.

No Need To Fly For A Bali High

By sunset or nightfall, those staying to pass traffic or spend the night are invited for cocktails in the guesthouse patio. It is a spot where you can witness how the golden sky leans down to kiss the water and mountain ranges. While enjoying a G&T with fresh herbs, a verdant Balinese-inspired garden is illuminated inspiring a soundtrack of chill-out music.

The guesthouse was built with the intention of welcoming those who are nearest and dearest. It is configured with a lounge area occupied by custom day beds. They are sized larger than usual with afternoon naps, pajama days, and lazy weekends in mind. There is a pocket dining area at the back of the house that sits up to six guests. The solid wood table that had been with the family for years, has hosted several Asian-themed weekend dinners. Shabu Shabu hotpot meals or Bulalo Ramen and fresh sushi from Aozora (arguably the best Japanese restaurant in Tagaytay) are choice dishes, especially on a cold rainy evening. Let me just say that since Aoroza, Japanese dining in Manila has been completely ruined for me. Asian inspired dinners at the Bali guesthouse are often followed by a few rounds of mahjong, a bottle of single malt Yamazaki, and the deepest slumber.  

Global Flavors In And Around The Bundoks

After almost a year of living mostly in the province, I’ve discovered dining gems and secret spots that make life in the bundoks extra special. Fact is, there is more to Tagaytay than Antonio’s and Balay Dako. You will also find that this small city offers exceptional flavors apart from the usual fare of tawilisbulalo, or buco pie.

Trattoria Mario Mio

On Sundays when we crave authentic Italian fare Trattoria Mario Mio is a Tuscan-inspired spot that I like to get dressed for. Its menu was created by L’Opera’s Paolo Nesi with specialties fit for feast: an impeccably grilled rib eye, brick oven-baked Parmigiano Pizza, and Duck Ravioli. You’ll also want to try their homemade Calamansi Limoncello and panna cotta.

Galli Spanish Restaurant

Tapas is a good idea on a Friday night, even for a small town like Tagaytay. The newly-opened Galli Spanish Restaurant is a quaint and rustic tavern that you can close out for small groups. The entire space can only accommodate one long table of up to six seats so I highly recommend calling for reservations. Galli offers an impressive selection of Spanish wines and an equally satisfying menu of chorizo, gambas, paella, salpicao, and other culinary classics. Conceived by the same guys behind Aozora, you can expect warm and cordial staff that make you feel like you’re visiting a friend’s home.

Cafe Voila

When I celebrated my quarantine birthday, my one request was a meal from Café Voila. It’s been a go-to for me and my family since I first visited in 2017. Apart from cozy Asian inspired interiors and an outdoor dining area surrounded by pine trees, service in this restaurant is unsurpassed. Waiters never seem to forget a name or a face, let alone your usual dish and preferred table. Many who frequent the place are on a first-name basis with the staff to a point where servers are empowered to order meals for regulars. “Paulie, I’ll leave it up to you to order for lunch,” once said a family friend who now spends most of the week in her home at Tagaytay Highlands. Psulie’s suggestions are flawless. Generously sized dishes Thai Pomelo Salad, Phad Thai, Tom Yum, and the Satay Sampler transport senses to the kingdom formerly known as Siam. There are other specials on the menu like All-Day Breakfast meals or extra fluffy pancakes with berries. In the mornings, these are specials that bikers look forward to after an intense ride uphill.

The Fatted Calf

One of the perks of living in the bundoks is the unrivaled access to the freshest produce. Brunch at The Fatted Calf revealed countless flavorful possibilities when working with organic, local products. When the guys at Fatted Calf say “farm-to-table,” they mean this quite literally. Dishes are all decidedly made of locally sourced vegetables, proteins and other produce. “All our meats are grass-fed, our chickens are free-range. Our vegetables are sources from small, local farms,” explained our server. 

This charming new dining hub hidden along smaller roads of Silang, Cavite is actually the home of its chef Jay Sycip and pastry chef Rhea Castro. The Fatted Calf, at least for now,  is only open from Fridays to Mondays, and sits a limited number of diners. The best time to go is on a Monday morning for brunch. It is a day when moat establishments in the city are close for mandatory sanitation day. 

Specialities to try include: fried kesong puti with Manille Liqueur Calamansi, Imus longganisa with sun-dried kamias and capsicums. For large groups with equally sizable appetites, Fatted Calf’s grass fed, 10-hour, roasted  beef shank is a masterpiece on the dinner table. Pair with bottle pinot noir and toast to the good bundok life with loved ones. 

There are lighter options that are just as heartwarming. Consider a dish of  pan fried fresh catch topped with veggies and homemade mustard. Contrast of textures and flavors work well especially following a few bites off their Farmer’s Tartine. It is a medley of local burrata  from Negros, patani puree and organic greens. 

When dining at the Fatted Calf, always make room for Flour Pot Manila‘s desserts made by Chef Rhea. Tres Leches, made using carabao’s milk and Benguet strawberries, is a beautiful meal-ender that’s almost too pretty to eat. Their signature rum cakes (soaked in rum beurre) are sweet delights you will also want to take home with you. We brought home a box, only to come back the follow day for more—plus a slice of Strawberry Shortcake. It’s that good.

Cafe Agapita

Cafe Agapita in Silang, Cavite is a well kept secret among locals that serves up a good Barako brew and tasty comfort food. 

A robust and reasonably-priced cup of brew is essential, not only in the mornings but throughout the day. While the designer franchises are reliable and easy choices, life outside of the city has taught me to appreciate a good, local Barako brew. Café Agapita is a little kept secret among locals that serves a beautiful cuppa and easy comfort food amidst lush gardens. The outdoor area is surrounded by bamboos that sway with the cool breeze. At the center, is a large tree that provides ample shade from the warm afternoon sun. There are also nipa huts for more private dining.

My measure for a good café lies in how frothy their cappuccino is, and they did not disappoint. In true Barako form, the fullness of the cafe’s brew filled soothed the senses. Delicate tinges of chocolate, berries, and spice added to the distinct taste of this special Iberica bean topped with clouds of artfully frothed milk. Desserts like Heaven and Earth Chocolate cake are sweet accompaniments for an afternoon treat. If you are craving for something more savory, Café Agapita’s Grilled Cheese Sandwich is not to be missed. You may even want to order an extra serving for the drive back.

There are countless reasons for heading to the bundoks, and even more for building a life there. The past months have felt more like a time for discovering a new way of living. It is one that is significantly pared down but by no means devoid of extraordinary moments every day. I still head back to Manila a few days each week, but only for errands and essential work obligations. And upon every return to the provincial life, I hold my breath for the next bundok adventure. 

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Bianca Salonga is a lifestyle journalist who has been in publishing for the last two decades. She took up her MBA in Luxury Goods and Fashion in Paris, France. Both experience and higher education continue to inform her work as a brand story teller and advocate for purposeful living.
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