With influential figures in the food industry harping on sustainability and more conscious food waste and a growing population of people nipping at the heels of the organic movement, farm-to-table cuisine has never been as fashionable as it is today. What’s fascinating is that city restaurants aren’t the only ones joining the bandwagon: Beach and island resorts have also gone back to grassroots.
Fundacion Pacita Batanes Nature Lodge in Basco, Batanes already had a small vegetable garden from which the house menu revolved around, along with what is available at the local market. As most of the produce is flown or shipped in from neighboring cities, distance and bad weather limited the menu choices. “When we thought of Café du Tukon, we knew we wanted to create a menu that highlighted the best of Batanes,” says Patsy Abad, who runs the lodge. “Our whole idea was to create something out of whatever is indigenous or locally available, dishes that did not rely heavily on goods coming from the mainland. It was just a matter of planning and adding more produce. So we slowly started expanding the vegetable garden. Today, we now have two farm locations just across and behind the café.”
It was the opposite case for Kandaya Resort in Bantayan, Cebu where they had to scale down from the family company-owned farms, separate from the property, to their in-house garden. “They were sending us massive quantities of produce and it was stuff we didn’t need or couldn’t consume,” says resident executive chef Jose Magsino. “We had to discontinue it because it just wasn’t cost-effective for us. The upkeep was too high for the resort’s demand. And it became too expensive for us to buy our own items. It came to a point where the quantity we were producing was too much for Kandaya and too little to supply elsewhere.” Resort general manager Fritz Sommerau adds, “It was also challenging to control quality at that scale. What do you do with a mountain of salads when you only have 25 guests in the house?”
Consequently, Kandaya’s Hardin ni Milagros, lovingly named after the Salimbangon family matriarch, was slowly converted into a functional one. An arched trellis over the perimeter pathways is covered in fruiting passionfruit vines. The central curvilinear plots around an artesian well feature swathes of assorted plants and herbs looking as decorative as they are edible. Horseradish trees and various fruit trees work into the landscape. And salad greens are housed in net-covered bunkhouse frames to protect them from pests. “We couldn’t call ourselves organic but we adhere to the same principles. Most of the organic seeds we source from abroad don’t grow very well in this climate. We prefer to say natural,” says Sommerau. “We don’t use any chemicals. We make all sorts of fertilizers from milk serums, yeast—biodegradable alternatives.”
He breaks into a veritable David Attenborough with more gardening anecdotes. “Those little snails can be quite the pests around here. Apparently, they don’t like crawling over crushed eggshells. Those help keep them away.” The eggshells and a wash water solution derived from its simple soaking also help keep the soil alkaline. These and other kitchen waste together with garden byproducts end up in the compost, which they use to fatten up what was sandy near-shoreline soil.
Having noted the rather well-appointed fitness facilities in both open and indoor gym spaces, Magsino states that Kandaya started out as a full health and wellness retreat. Farm-to-table was the thrust to support a primarily vegan menu to tie into the programs. “We later found it self-limiting, that we really couldn’t give that to our guests. Nor do we have a large local vegan market to cater to.” The shift to a more mainstream luxury resort format allowed it to be inclusive while still maximizing the garden groundwork already laid.
At Kandaya’s Kusina Restaurant, roughly 50 percent of the ingredients come from the garden and the rest is sourced locally around Cebu and the immediate area. They’ve learned to take account of seasonality and serve what they manage to grow. Some items are pickled for later use or bottled as sauces or jams. Fresh catch is literally what local fishermen bring to their pier daily. Saturdays at the restaurant feature a “fish market” where seafood is displayed on ice and which guests can pick to be cooked to their liking. Their everyday menu was also designed to be fairly loose and non-specific to adjust to what is fresh and readily available.
Café du Tukon’s Salad Nu Itukon is composed of eggplant, tomatoes, garlic, and onions picked from their backyard. The other salads—Greek, Caesar, Romesco, and Arugula-Parmesan—all take greens from their garden. It’s the same for the soups like cream of roasted pumpkin and roasted tomato basil and pesto, chermoula, and other herb sauces. “Creating everything from scratch and from freshly harvested produce is something you really can’t beat. I do not think you can ever go wrong if you have the freshest ingredients at hand,” says Abad. The small farm and their connections with other farmers in the barangay help them with their move to rely less on mainland produce. Advocating the use of both what is indigenous and available on the island, they hope that other hotels and restaurants follow suit and maybe attract the local community to go back to farming, too.
The unpredictable weather of Batanes is the be-all and end-all of yield. While it presents serious limitations, this challenge has pushed their creativity in substitutions and creating entirely new items. “Last September, we experienced the strongest typhoon to hit Batanes and until now, our farms are still recovering, so there are a lot of items on our menu that we had to tweak. We also have a seasonal menu that features items and produce that are available now.”
Sommerau concurs with the challenges of environmental presets. He cites the example of their tomato plants that refused to bear fruit. “It took us a while to realize our soil was too acidic. It was wonderful to imagine that we’d have a greenhouse full of tomatoes. Then everything went belly-up. Vegetables here tend to grow with thicker skin and only to a particular size. We had to learn about that and adjust to it.” Though trying, this kind of problem still bore good results. “We had to make mistakes. We had to learn the hard way. The perfect way.”
With the entire world seriously looking into sustainability, Magsino believes that the movement is more than just a passing fad. Everything is tied up. It goes hand-in-hand. I think everyone wants to be sustainable. It’s a long shot for us right now. In terms of practices and how we do things, we’re on our way. It’s all a matter of time. We’re getting things more organized and planned out. Foresight is there.” In a nod to nature and tradition, Abad couldn’t agree with any more conviction. “The beauty of our landscape and the protection of our land and waters are proof of the Ivatans’ respect for the environment and for the laws of nature. For us to preserve our ways, we sincerely hope that farm-to-table cooking will forever be a way of life.”
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