LAST week, I had the most enjoyable time at the Gabii sa Kabilin in the town of Argao, in southern Cebu. My friends and I came early so we had time to walk around the Cabecera (the old complex where the church, plaza and municipal hall are situated). I acted as a tour guide and showed them the magnificent church of Argao, the Puerta Marina and the Capilla de los Niños Inocentes
Our last stop were the food stalls near the Tourism office. There were Torta sellers, three of Argao’s leading makers—Chitang’s, Oj’s and Jessie’s in a row—and in the middle was Guilang’s, the tableya maker.
Torta ug Sikwate is a quintessential Cebuano food pairing. It’s a happy coincidence that Argao is known for these two concoctions.
Torta is something that we picked up from the Spaniards. The word “torta” is “cake” in the Spanish language. Pre-Spanish Cebuanos made bibingka and puto, spongy cake-like delicacies from rice. On the other hand, from our western colonizers, we learned to make cakes.
Spain came not just to colonize us but also to convert us to Catholicism. The Sword and the Cross, so to speak.
Before long the priests started building churches. At first these were bamboo or wooden structures with nipa roofs. However they soon realized that flimsy structures don’t last in a place where typhoons and monsoon rains occur quite often. Most of the Spanish priests who came were builder priests.
In Cebu, the churches eventually became huge edifices made from coral stones and hardwood. The building techniques used were
ingenious. There was no cement in the 17th century. In Cebu, coral stones abound. These were cutinto big square blocks for symmetry. The stones when piled one on top of another needed a mortar to bind them. Studies of the structures show that the argamasa or mortar used as binder was composed of the sap of the Law-at tree, lime, and egg whites. Yes, egg white!
Imagine the size of church of Argao dedicated to San Miguel Archangel and how much egg whites were used to bind thousands of coral stone blocks that make up the structure. Now, imagine how many egg yolks were collected after the egg whites were used. Surely the women ofArgao wouldn’t allow the egg yolks to go to waste. Notice that in most towns with century-old stone churches, thereis the tradition of making sweets using egg yolk—like Yema, Tocino del Cielo, Leche Flan and Torta.
The torta we all know in Cebu is a golden hued crumbly cake redolent of pork lard, tuba, and anise. Tuba is used as a leavening agent. After the addition of tuba, the torta batter is allowed to “grow” for hours before baking. As for the pork lard, the old tradition is to extract lard from the fat of the pig butchered for the fiesta. For a year it is kept in a tin can with a tight lid, intended
for the making of Torta in the coming fiesta. Today it’s more convenient to buy from the Chicharron makers of Carcar.
The torta is best eaten a day after baking when all the ingredients have intermingled. Every bite should give you a whiff of the anise, the lard, and the tuba. Somehow, every bite should also remind you to thank the priests of old for constructing all those old stone churches.
(Baking Powder recipe)
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup pork lard
3 tsps baking powder
1/2 tsp anise seeds
8 egg yolks
1/4 cup melted butter
1/2 tsp salt
1 slightly beaten egg
3/4 cup milk
1 1/4 cup sugar for dusting
Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. In a big bowl, combine egg yolks and 1 1/4 cups sugar. Stir until well blended. Place the bowl over a pan with hot water (do not allow the water to boil) and stir the egg and sugar mixture until warm enough to touch.
Remove the bowl from the saucepan and beat the egg mixture with an electric mixer at medium speed for about 8 minutes until the mixture is fluffy and cool. Blend in 2/3 of the flour into the mixture alternately with the milk.
Fold in the rest of the flour and the lard, butter and anise seeds. Pour into paper-lined Torta molds about 2/3 full. Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes.Remove from the oven and sprinkle with sugar. Return to the oven for 5 minutes then remove from tin holds and let cool.