A Sense of Place,
a Sense of Time
Local and family recipes keep fond memories of this charming rustic place alive
A retreat in many ways, Amichilu is a family compound situated on a hill just off Matabungkay beach, 15 kilometers away from Nasugbu and half an hour’s drive from Calatagan. On this fair day, the 10 a.m. sun drenches every surface it touches, while brisk cooling breezes – the amihan – caress the various fruit trees which murmur the same thing: the temptation of a pre-lunch nap. During our visit, the residing family is blessed with members from three generations visiting for the week.
There’s the patriarch, an octogenarian, who has stolen away from the city after the hectic holidays, whiling away the hours in his workshop ingeniously recycling soda cans into festive piggy banks cheekily labeled “my little pork barrel”. Initially an outsider, he fell in love with a beauteous lass from Nasugbu, the same one who still makes his eyes light up with pleasure when he sees her. “I was taking my time making up my mind to marry her,” he jokes at lunch. “When she showed me her balisong, that was it for me!” The couple will be celebrating their 60th anniversary soon – and hopefully members of their family will gather in their honor – perhaps at this compound named after their children: Ana, Miguel, Chito and Luisa.
The gentle lady of the house, so light-footed that coral-studded beach gravel paths in the compound barely make a sound in her presence, is deeply religious and it’s mainly due to her patronage that the resident nuns enjoy a rent-free existence, treated like extended members of the family. In turn, the elderly couple are regaled with up-to-date information as the sisters go about their day-to-day activities as missionary teachers in various public schools.
In the beginning, Amichilu Hill was nothing more than a patch of land with a splendid view of the blue sea, and overrun with thorny bushes called aroma – these woody plants have wicked spikes capable of puncturing tires and said to be the coronation material used during Jesus’ crucifixion. Miguel, or “Mike”, a businessman, who shares the workshop with his father, can attest to the aroma’s ability to inflict serious injury – having had an unfortunate brush with it in the wilderness during an afternoon hunt as a youth – and has ever since trodden carefully on any rough and untended weed-strewn path, conscientiously pointing out the plant to any guests accompanying him.
One such guest is Ramon, Mike’s 20-something nephew, visiting from abroad, relishing the peace and quiet, and an abundance of physical and psychological space that allows him to explore the nearby beach on his own, the speed of local talk conveying upon him the status of a long-absent relative. In a tiny town such as Luyahan, everybody knows everybody and as Mike states with some pride, the crime rate is nil. Even the older families from Manila that bought land here still maintain their retreats, where there are no house numbers, just names, like the neighbor who dubbed their place Ginger Hill.
With various small homes created according to the simple needs of their occupants: large windows in Mike’s room strategically catch the amihan and habagat; large rooms in the guest house can comfortably accommodate 10 people; and even a tiny playhouse cleverly constructed from various elements from antique homes – the only rule here is that meals are taken communally and never in the rooms to prevent insect infestations. Three deep wells provide the water needed on-site, although a windmill used for pumping water has long been replaced by two electric pumps, while the third utilizes a liberty pump.
Our genial hosts ply us with hearty fare, perfectly paired comfort food that gladdens any Pinoy with a hankering for rice: at one meal it was monggo guisado, barbecued pork belly and shoulder skewered on sticks, steamed crabs, pancit, and cucumbers given a light vinegar rinse; another featured menudo, accompanied by a tart and slightly spicy seafood sinigang and fried lumpia, which went well with sugarcane vinegar featuring a crushed clove of garlic or a dip of chopped bird’s eye chilies and olive oil.
To finish the meal, dessert is an array of various rice cakes: steamed puto, jewel toned pichi-pichi, sticky and almost caramel-flavored biko, a subtly flavored suman – and the flattened sweet mung-bean filled orange dumpling called buchi – a favorite among the visitors for its texture and pleasing flavor.
Food is taken pretty seriously in Batangas, such that Mike received an unusual gift after purchasing fish at the market: a toothbrush to ensure the thorough cleaning of fish guts. The favorite meal of Amichilu’s older master though is breakfast: Batangas’ famous barako coffee generously poured over garlic rice and paired with tawilis, tuyo or galunggong. If there’s anything he and succeeding generations mourn, it’s the fact that imprudent fishing practices from decades past, like cyanide and dynamite fishing, have made it difficult to live off the sea. Our hostess regales us with a tale of a fishing trip she undertook with her husband decades ago before Matabungkay boomed as a resort town, when he caught several talakitok weighing no less than seven kilos each – the bounty generously shared with those who weren’t as lucky to get a bite on their line.
As some of us compliment the quality of the barako coffee, surprisingly full-bodied but without an unpleasant acidity, Mike stresses that the secret lies in serving the brew immediately to minimize the liquid from turning as it sits in its carafe atop a hot plate. It seems fortunate to experience good coffee in the land famous for this pricey bean, where sugar also grows to sweeten it, and the cows or carabaos can produce milk to enrich the drink.
There is no shortage of fruits in season: the Calatagan-Nasugbu road has a profusion of mango trees at one point, and Amichilu’s masters boast of seven mango varieties grown at a nearby orchard including carabao, apple-mango, Indian, and the sweet dwarf variety prized for its paper-thin seed. The compound itself has various trees: duhat, atis, siniguelas, santol, avocado, calumpit, guava, choco, and two types of sampaloc: the sweet type for juice, and the tart or sour for sinigang.
A SENSE OF COMMUNITY
Others, aside from ourselves, have been tasting the generous largesse of this private estate for a long time. The love of this family for their land is tied closely with their passion for their community. Amichilu has served as host to a community of Catholic nuns for more than three decades, a haven while they quietly grew to spread their mission work in the Philippines.
Schoolchildren from the nearby barrios come occasionally to attend the catechist classes offered by the sisters at a small cabin on the estate.
The number of young people increase during the Christmas and New Year holidays, as the family opens their gates for a traditional community celebration. Yet, underlying all that revelry is the serenity that we ourselves experienced during this brief visit. For its residents and guests, Amichilu is a place where one gets away from the rest of the world while finding serenity within.