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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Saturday, March 04, 2023

entry arrow3:02 AM | Nico and Ige

Nico is Nicolas Astarie, chocolatier.

The event was a chocolate tasting, held at Dakong Balay along Rizal Avenue on a February Sunday just right before Valentines Day—and it felt right, more or less, for the upcoming occasion. Which must be why, when we came to be part of the second batch of tasters being organized by Mr. Astarie and Pinspired Philippines, the participants turned out to be mostly couples, all eager to share a later afternoon round of locally made chocolate in each other’s company, tasting a variety of flavors Mr. Astarie was developing for his locally made brand of chocolate, aptly called NicoCacao. What’s a better metaphor, after all, for love than blended cacao?

Love was the air we were breathing, but the subject was still chocolate, something Mr. Astarie was particularly eager to share his expertise about. He began by telling us that chocolate, like wine, has complex flavors, which is rarely acknowledged—and he should know since he’s a transplanted Frenchman who comes from wine country. He went on to give us the most salient information about the cacao plant and the fruit from whose pods we harvest cacao beans, the basic ingredient of chocolate. He gave us the various kinds of cacao—primarily forastero, criollo, trinitario, and nacional, of which the first one is the most dominant. He gave us its history—primarily centered around Central and South American cultures, and how these beans were later transported to be cultivated in specific countries around the world, notably in Ghana and the Ivory Coast in Africa. He talked about the specific history of cacao cultivation in the Philippines—out of which we have derived our heritage of sikwate and tablea. He went on to talk about chocolate production in general, and then his own journey into chocolate-making, with the goal of making Negros Oriental chocolate one of the best in the Philippines if not the world.

But this was also an interest that came about to him almost accidentally, although Mr. Astarie had always loved chocolates. The pandemic was partly to blame. He had come to Dumaguete for a job as a diving instructor in a Dauin resort, just right before the entire world locked down. He was actually about to leave Negros Oriental for another job at a Malapascua resort when the pandemic happened.

In the pandemic doldrums that followed, he came across local cacao and was so impressed by their quality, he began hatching an idea—a crazy one: he resolved to make European-style chocolate using local produce, and thus NicoCacao was born. In the process, he also found himself able to help struggling local farmers who needed assistance—and needed a market—for the cacao plants they were cultivating, often to distressing results before. “Cacao is a community, not a commodity,” he stressed—and insisted that NicoCacao is inherently a social enterprise that aids local agricultural practice. Today, he uses cacao primarily produced in Mabinay, as well as in Amlan, with plans to also use harvest from La Castellana in Negros Occidental. He does his processing in Valencia town, where he lives. [Pinspired Philippines, based in Dumaguete, has provided the packaging.] His goal is to make his chocolate uniquely Negros, in a process that’s a straight line from tree to bar.

Alongside him in this chocolate journey is his partner Cathey Macatigue, a Davaoena with Dumaguete roots who manages the business, and puts the limits to Nico’s tendency to play around forever with his experiments with coming up with new added flavors for his chocolates.

The tasting involved savoring three varieties of NicoCacao’s chocolate, which they are currently marketing: 80% cacao [what you would consider as “dark chocolate”], 70% cacao, and 60% cacao. “Anything less than 50%,” Mr. Astarie says, “is no longer real chocolate.” Paired with red wine, everything was perfect.

And then the surprise: a tasting of three flavor varieties he had been experimenting on right now—chocolate with calamansi, chocolate with sili, and our favorite, chocolate with asin tibuok! He was looking for the most local of flavors to infuse into NicoCacao, and the three seemed like the best possible varieties to go beyond just the usual. And with his asin tibuok flavor, there was also the added pleasure of imbibing a disappearing tradition of salt-making, a Boholano heritage that is now considered a world cultural treasure. [Bea Misa of Ritual Dumaguete describes asin tibuok this way: “[It is] salt from Albuquerque, Bohol, [which is] on the brink of extinction, made using a very labor-intensive, pre-Hispanic method of production that coincided with the rice harvest. Traditionally, once the salt pots were made, saltmakers would batter them for sacks of rice. Coconut husks are soaked for three months in saltwater pools by the mangrove. These husks are burnt in a highly controlled manner. The ashes are placed in large filters. More seawater is poured through the ashes, leaching the salt to make a very highly concentrated brine. Specially made clay pots are placed over a wood fire. The concentrated brine is poured continuously for eight hours into the bubbling pots. The saltmaker keeps a close eye on evaporation, as the pots will crack if not filled. The result is a smoky orb of salt that weighs roughly a kilo. The asin tibook may be cracked and grated (traditionally, pieces were dipped into soup and rinsed before storing). The salt is slightly sweet and smoky.”]

Once its in your mouth, the dark chocolate with asin tibuok makes you taste the salt right away—but its saltiness doesn’t assault you; rather it mixes well with the chocolate. Our second favorite, the dark chocolate with sili, radiates heat very slowly and strikes your tongue swiftly when the chili flake hits your tongue.

“Take the piece of chocolate on your tongue and let the warmth of your palate melt the square,” Mr. Astarie reminded us in the very beginning. “This is the right way to eat chocolate.” [A sudden realization: we’ve been eating chocolate the wrong way all these years!] “This is to slowly introduce the different flavor profiles in the chocolate to your tongue, and maximize the complexity of the cacao.”

You can get his NicoCacao chocolate bars at Pinspired Philippines, at Ritual Dumaguete at 58 EJ Blanco Studios, and at Salaya Beach Houses in Dauin.

* * *

Ige is Guillermo Ramos, book designer, magazine editor, and food historian.

The event that will feature him in Dumaguete this coming March 18, Saturday starting at 9 AM at 58 EJ Blanco Studios, is a culture and gastronomy mapping workshop for cultural workers, entrepreneurs, and food culture enthusiasts. It is being organized by Ritual Dumaguete.

We’ve known Ige for sometime now—although we’ve never met. But we know him to be a truly outstanding designer and writer whose books include Dila at Bandila: The Search for the National Palate of the Philippines and Appetite for Freedom: The Recipes of Maria Y. Orosa.

One of his recent works is Republic of Taste: The Untold Stories of Cavite Cuisine, for which the historian Ambeth Ocampo has noted: “Cavite is usually studied through historical or written records that document the establishment of towns, the highs and lows of population and demography, the catalog of revolts and revolution that figure in the birth of nation. It is even possible to see its heroes and its villains. Ige Ramos has chosen to trace Cavite’s past through its food and the process found a history rooted in its food: how geography determined the products of the land, and how waterways explained physical mobility and transfer of Chinese, Spanish, Mexican, American, and Japanese influences over the centuries that gave shape, color and taste to their food.”

It is in that spirit of historical/culinary reckoning that Ige will share with Dumaguete his experience of mapping the gastronomic heritage of his native Cavite—”visiting markets, interviewing people, documenting and sharing both common and little-known ingredients, shining light on fascinating historical facts and anecdotes that gave birth to their cuisine.” He will also share practical tips and possible applications for the knowledge and network you might gather in the future, as well as point out the textures in our own backyard!

Registration fee is PhP 500, which includes snacks. [Student rate is PhP 300.] To register for the workshop or to get more information, please email ritualdumaguete@gmail.com or text 0917-824-5701.

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