As dawn backlights the cool-season mist hovering over his rice paddies, Filipino farmer Jose Macapagal places a calming palm on his calf’s broad brow. It’s no use. The 6-month-old water buffalo has just spotted his mother, and he’s hungry.
An adult female led by a rope attached to a metal ring in her nose lumbers behind Jose’s helper, who leads her to her offspring. After a bit of nuzzling the two are separated and as his helper holds her steady, Jose squats next to the water buffalo, places a plastic container beneath her udder and begins milking.
Buffalo milk is commonly associated with Italy, where it’s made mostly into mozzarella cheese. But the water buffalo originated in Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, where the gentle beast is still integral to rice production, its milk is a treasured commodity.
Gatas ng kalabaw — as water buffalo milk is called in Tagalog — “goes to the heart of our food memories,” says Filipino Amy Besa. “It’s a much-beloved item that is hard to get because of lack of supply.” Besa and her chef-husband Romy Dorotan own the Purple Yam restaurant in Brooklyn and co-wrote the 2006 “Memories of Philippine Kitchens.”
Farmers know best
In the Philippines it has long been farmers who are most likely to have access to gatas ng kalabaw, says Besa: “It was famous for farmers’ breakfast. They would pour it over hot rice.”
Other Filipinos lucky enough to lay their hands on water buffalo milk pour it over champurado (chocolate-y rice porridge made with Philippine cacao) and add it to coffee and tsokolate (drinking chocolate). The Philippines produces its own buffalo milk mozzarella, which is firmer and saltier than Italy’s. The milk is also used to make a soft, mild cheese called kesong puti.
The Filipino love of water buffalo milk finds perhaps its sweetest expression in the confections of Pampanga, a rice- and sugar-producing province in the northern region of Luzon whose natives are known for their love of good eating. In Pampanga, Chinese ancestry, Spanish colonialism and vast wealth generated by the production of sugar and rice gave birth to a regional cuisine that’s often described as the Philippines’ richest and most varied. The province is renowned for its European-influenced confections, many of which feature water buffalo milk.
Dulce de Leche, Philippines Style
Carreon’s Sweets & Pastries, a tiny confectionary in the Pampangan municipality of Magalang, has been churning out exquisite buffalo milk sweets for more than 60 years. Founded by housewife Lourdes Sanchez Carreon shortly after World War II, it specializes in treats incorporating pastillas de leche, a rich paste of water buffalo milk cooked slowly over low heat with cane sugar.
On a typically sunny, dry-season December day I make a pastillas pilgrimage to Carreon’s with two gatas ng kalabaw-loving Filipino friends — Marc Medina, a Manila native whose father hails from Pampanga and still maintains his family’s ancestral home in the small rural town of Arayat, and Erlita Mendoza, a researcher at the Center for Intercultural Studies of the University of Santo Tomas in Pampanga and an expert on the province’s food culture.
Elisa Carreon, a sturdy short-haired woman clad in sleeveless shift and flip-flops, is the daughter-in-law of the shop’s founder Lourdes. After greeting us with a grin she leads us inside and behind the sales counter, where we duck between white curtains printed with blue flowers. Above, on a whitewashed wall-mounted altar, sits a statue of Santo Nino — the baby Jesus, believed by Filipinos to bring luck to merchants.
We follow Elisa to a dimly lit room where three burly young men are slowly stirring water buffalo milk and sugar into pastillas de leche in big wok-like pans. Several batches will be allowed to “burn” brown until the pastillas caramelizes, and is then formed into caramelos — square caramel-ish cakes topped with a single cashew — or wrapped in short-crust pastry for mini baked “turnovers” called empanaditas.
We backtrack into Carreon’s spotless main kitchen. For a workspace that turns out such sophisticated sweets it’s surprisingly small and low-tech, with just a few stainless steel prep tables, portable gas-fired double burners, and non-commercial refrigerators. Elisa has agreed to show us how she makes a gatas ng kalabaw specialty that lures customers from Manila (a 90-minute drive) and beyond: plantanilla, delicate sugar syrup-cooked egg yolk crepes filled with pastillas.
The crepe batter is made from “the freshest egg yolks and nothing else,” beaten till thick and frothy, Elisa tells us. Nearby a wide saucepan of cane sugar melted with water heats on a burner. When it begins to bubble, Elisa turns off the heat, explaining that “if it’s bubbling when you pour in the batter the pancakes will break.” After the bubbles have subsided she quickly spoons batter onto the surface of the liquid, forming 3-inch discs. When the sugar water is covered, but not crowded, with crepes she turns the heat back on and returns the liquid to a slow simmer.
After a few minutes the surfaces of the crepes turn from liquid-glossy to spongy-matte. Elisa carefully lifts them from the sugar water with a slotted spatula and places them on a sheet pan slicked with coconut oil.
“You can also fill the crepes with latik (caramelized coconut milk curd),” she tells us. Erlita and Marc know this already, but all three of us only have eyes for the bowl of freshly made eggshell-hued pastillas Elisa has just pulled from the refrigerator.
Elisa makes assembling the plantanillas look like a breeze. She scrapes a small cylinder from the pastillas‘ surface with a spatula, drops it in the middle of a crepe, and folds one half over the other. But her movements are practiced (she’s been making plantanillas since she married into the Carreon clan in 1978) and painstaking (though cooked, the crepes are still fragile) as she scoops, fills, folds and finally arranges the golden half-moons in a pretty spiral on a flowered plate.
Elisa finishes, and we taste. With the slightest pressure the light and spongy crepes ooze liquid sweetness; the gatas ng kalabaw has been transformed into a creamy cloud with a mouthfeel somewhere between pot de creme and an ice cream of the highest butterfat content. The two together make for a heady combination that’s somehow neither tooth-achingly sweet nor overwhelmingly heavy.
Marc, Erlita and I swoon. Elisa beams. Marc asks for two boxes of 15 — no, make that 25, he decides — to go. There’s a house full of other gatas ng kalabaw lovers waiting back in Arayat.
Zester Daily contributor David Hagerman shoots for the New York Times, Travel+Leisure and Saveur, among other publications. To view more of his slide shows, go to davidhagerman.photoshelter.com. Robyn Eckhardt is a food and travel journalist based in Penang, Malaysia. She also is a contributor to Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia and has been published in Saveur, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Asia. Her last article for Zester was a double book review, Veggies and Grains Deluxe.