The Story Behind Cebu’s Love Affair With Chocolate
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Sikwate has been a Cebuano staple for breakfast and merienda through the years, mainly because of its taste and ready availability. Striking the perfect balance between bitter and sweet, sikwate is the ideal drink for cold December early mornings after Simbang Gabi, especially if paired with puto, bibingka, pandesal, or torta.
Like tableya chocolate cake, champorado, and other local chocolate food favorites, sikwate is made from cacao, a non-indigenous plant introduced by the Spanish colonizers and embraced by Cebuanos, which has become ingrained into our local culture and heritage.
The origin of cacao in the Philippines
In the 17th century, various plants like the criollo cacao were brought from Central America to the Philippines by way of the Galleon Trade. It is still unclear on how cacao was cultivated in the country, but there have been two recorded accounts of how this came to be:
The first account narrates that in 1670, a foot of cacao was brought to the islands from Acapulco, Mexico and was given to Bro. Hirtolome Bravo. However, a native from Lipa named Juan de Aguila stole the cacao and began cultivating the plant.
Fr. Gaspar de S. Agustin recorded cacao’s growth and spread in the years that followed in Historia de Filipinas: “And from this foot, the Cacao had its origin on how this noble fruit abounded in these islands. In the year of 1674, where the Parish Priest of Lipa was Fr. Ignacio de Moreado, who distributed seeds of this tree to many people. Cacao is produced in Batangas at the height of nine or twelve feet, and there is plenty of it, as well as in Cebu and in other parts of the country.”
The second account states that it was Philippines’ new governor general Diego de Salcedo who insisted on cultivating the plant in 1663 and according to written records by Recollect monk Juan de la Concepcion, cacao was first planted in Carigara, Leyte. This was later confirmed by Fr. Manuel Blanco’s written accounts and sketches in Flora en Filipinas.
Despite two different accounts, it is clear that the cacao was cultivated at around the same period in Luzon and Visayas. In the years that followed, cacao trees began growing abundantly throughout neighboring regions and islands, particularly in Batangas, Cebu, and Davao.
“And yet, the lushness of the lands is such, and how well cocoa has taken root in them, that many millions of gantas, or almudes, come out to sell in Manila and elsewhere,” wrote Juan Jose Delgado as recorded in Biblioteca Histórica Filipina. “And they even send it to neighboring kingdoms to sell, now also as a gift, which is the best that can be done, mainly to our neighbors, the Portuguese from Macao and elsewhere.”
The Municipality of Argao in Cebu was once dubbed as the province’s “Cacao Town” because of its robust cacao growing tradition and popular tablea-making industry. Situated roughly 66km south of the city, Argao is also the home of the famous Maria Cacao.
According to a version of the tale, a diwata named Maria Cacao lives in a cave in Mt. Lantoy, Argao where she tends a cacao plantation with her husband Mangao. When it rains, she travels down the mountain in a golden ship to sell her products. The locals would know if Maria Cacao set out to sell her crops if the Mananga River floods or a river bridge is broken.
The legend of Maria Cacao has been passed down by generations of Cebuanos and has spread from the barrios of Argao to neighboring towns and islands through the ages. It is one of the most well-loved stories in Cebu and gives credence to Argao’s claim as the historical “Cacao Town.”
Cacao to gold
In 1948, Miguela “Guilang” Lanutan and her husband, Pedro Lanutan from Canbanua, Argao, decided to start a tableya business in order to send their kids to school. The couple used locally-produced cacao beans from Mt. Lantoy and quickly found success in their venture. After several years, the Lanutans found increased local competition and decided to try different processes in tableya-making to achieve a unique flavor and get an edge over competitors.
Guilang makes tableya the traditional way by roasting cacao beans in batches and then grounding them to form a paste. The skin is separated through winnowing and the cacao is manually grounded again to smoothen it before being molded by hand into small tablets. What makes them unique is that they use the meticulous process of high roasting, and refine the tablets for two to three hours to sift out undesired particles.
Before, in Guilang’s time, all these were done manually. With her son, Edgar Lanutan, who now oversees the business with his son and brothers, the use of customized machines made in China have made the process more efficient, such as packaging. A new step in the process of tableya-making has also been introduced. This is the refinery; which has made it possible to produce varieties in tableya, the classic and premium, a matter of difference in texture but yielding the same taste.
Today, the Lanutan family owns and operates a factory and nursery in Argao. Still, most of the cacaos are sourced from Davao. Guilang is now one of the most popular tableya-makers in the country, with products being sold at local grocery stores, pasalubong centers, and even on online shopping platforms.
Cebu's chocolate queen
Like the Lanutans, Raquel Choa also found her niche through her love for chocolate. She made use of her knowledge of tableya-making and started a cacao-based business. She also began raising awareness about locally-made chocolates and eventually gained the title “Cebu’s Chocolate Queen” due to her relentless advocacy and passion for the craft.
Choa’s love for chocolate began at a young age and stemmed from a challenging childhood. When she was seven, she was left under the care of her grandmother in a rebel-infested barangay in the Municipality of Balamban, about 53km from Cebu.
Amid the difficulties and conflict, cacao sustained her and her family. They lived off tableya-making and often had to rely on drinking sikwate to curb their hunger as they crossed seven rivers on foot to get to school. She also credits her grandmother for teaching her how to make tableya and telling her the legend of Maria Cacao, both of which greatly influenced her passion and advocacy.
Choa moved back to the city at the age of 14, and only revisited her love of chocolate years later in 2009 when an Argentinian friend asked her about Cebu’s specialties and what the province could offer to the world. This lightbulb moment inspired her to return to her roots, delve into the chocolate-making tradition once again, and eventually open several businesses centered on chocolates and cacao.
Choa now operates Ralfe Gourmet and The Chocolate Chamber (TCC), which produces artisanal cacao products and chocolates, respectively. She also runs Casa de Cacao, which holds Chocolate Appreciation Tours and offers sikwate variants and cacao-based meals. The story of Maria Cacao greatly inspired Casa de Cacao’s aesthetics and her artisan chocolates. But what is most interesting is how Choa made the story her own and her brand.
The future of Cacao in Cebu
Cacao has come a long way since it first arrived on Philippine shores 350 years ago, but the country also has a long way to go in terms of improving the quality of its cacao, promoting its products locally, and educating farmers about the opportunities in cacao production.
Guilang Tableya works hand-in-hand with government agencies and schools to revive the cacao industry in Argao. They distribute free cacao seeds harvested from their nursery in Talaytay, Argao to local farmers and assist them in cultivating cacao through the Farmer Scientists Program. They are also leading a cacao replanting initiative, which aims to plant and grow two million cacao trees by 2025.
Raquel Choa, on the other hand, continues to help bring back the art of tableya-making and elevate the country’s native chocolate locally and internationally through her projects and advocacies. She also founded the Cacao de Filipinas Fellowship (CFF), an organization that supports, teaches, and empowers local cacao farmers in Tuburan, where she also sources her cacao.
The increasing demand for cacao products and its presence in local households and five star hotels in Cebu are a testament to its constant popularity and demand. Cacao has not only helped farmers and artisans for many generations, but it has also united local communities, improved our local and national identity, and helped preserve our local culture—all of this just stemming from a humble foot of cacao planted on Philippine soil many years ago.
The Ramon Aboitiz Foundation Inc. (RAFI) is a non-government organization, one of the biggest in the country, established in 1966. It works in the areas of micro-finance, leadership, education, biodiversity conservation, and legacy programs in cancer support and advocacy and early childhood. It also focuses on the preservation and promotion of local culture and heritage, with its centerpiece, the Casa Gorordo Museum, and through storyweaving.