LEAVE THE CITY BEHIND AND DISCOVER THE RUSTIC PLEASURES OF CAUAYAN IN ISABELA.
TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY EDGAR ALAN ZETA-YAP
Even termites can’t tear this house down — they’d go running to the dentist!” Jose Juan Plaza cracks a joke, poking fun at the hardwood posts of his century-old property. Seventeen years ago, the Plaza family acquired the Tabacalera warehouse in Cauayan City, Isabela. A historic remnant of Hacienda de San Luis, it was built in 1902 during the waning years of the tobacco company.
In fact, Jose Juan Plaza’s white beard and commanding presence make it easy for us to picture the Manila-born Spanish entrepreneur back in the 19th century, sporting a coat and top hat.
Tabacalera, the popular name of Compania General de Tabacos de Filipinas, was founded in 1881 as a private enterprise that took on the Tobacco Monopoly of the Spanish government. The tobacco farmlands of Cauayan lured workers from as far as Ilocos and Pangasinan. Although it is still called tabacal, the riverside plantations now grow corn, rice, cassava and vegetables. Today, the only reminders of Cauayan’s lucrative trade are the quaint warehouse — now a furniture workshop — and the cigarette that Plaza smokes as we chat on his porch overlooking the Cagayan River.
Established in 1740 as a town of Cagayan province in northeastern Luzon, Cauayan was named after the kawayan (bamboo) groves that once grew in abundance along the meandering river. Nestled in the heart of Isabela — the second largest province in the Philippines — it became an official city in 2001. Through the centuries, it has reaped success from its vast agricultural lands and the resourcefulness of its multi-ethnic people. What the city lacks in commercial tourism attractions, it makes up for in activities that appeal to the country mouse in all of us.
“Out of our 65 barangays, 59 are agricultural,” says city agriculturist Rufino Arcega as we pass through an ocean of flowering corn in East Tabacal. The green and yellow plains stretch towards the indigo mountains of the Sierra Madre in the horizon. Farmers diligently attend to their fields as cattle-pulled carts used to deliver their produce roll by the roadside.
At West Tabacal, in Barangays Duminit and Gagabutan, residents load tricycles with the morning’s pickings at the Gulayan ng Bayan, a government livelihood project encouraging backyard farming. Here, visitors may join the harvest and get the best deals on a variety of vegetables like bitter melon, eggplant, okra, sponge gourd and white pumpkin. As much as they toil with the soil, Cauayenos relish the hard-earned fruits of their labor, which they graciously share with travelers.
Amid southern rice fields, Isabela Green Valley Farm in Barangay Sillawit is an oasis of rural leisure with a kaleidoscope of ornamental plants — orchids, bromeliads and tillandsias — that transition into the lush foliage of exotic fruit trees like longan and breadfruit. “This is our life here, so simple, so peaceful…” says award-winning farm owner Floresma Dacuycuy, whose dedication to craft provides employment to her neighbors. “Oh, those are my dwarf coconuts!” she exclaims, breaking her reverie with enthusiasm as she leads me beyond the butterfly farm to bamboo huts for a health buff’s cornucopia of fish, vegetables and fruits, all fresh from her farm. We had sinigang na pangasius — a tamarind soup with locally raised imported riverine fish, eggplant and string beans stew, fried tilapia and bitter melon salad on the side, and then fresh coconut juice to wash down the meal.
Jackfruit-stuffed sweet buchi (sesame seed balls) made with squash and horseradish tree leaves served as dessert. “That’s really good for kids. You can fool them into eating vegetables,” she says as her grandchildren rush to our table.
Along the National Highway, stands the Mushroom Center, began just two years ago for One Town, One Product (OTOP). “Cauayan didn’t have an identity, so we ventured into something new and different,” says chairwoman Yolanda Alvendia. Today, the center grows a variety of fresh oyster, straw and ganoderma mushrooms for city residents to harvest.
In the kitchen, Von Lyndell Rivera, the center’s acting manager is cooking mushroom tempura. The center creates interesting mushroom versions of favorite meat dishes likesisig (a sizzling dish made with pork jowl), lumpia (spring rolls) and empanada (stuffed pastry). Branded Green Ladies’ Harvest, their products are bestsellers. “Even the President loved our mushroom salad,” Alvendia says with pride. Adds Rivera, “We even have mushroom ice cream.”
It seems Cauayan is taking its new epithet of “Mushroom City of the North” rather seriously. From its old-world tabacales to its farms and its mushrooming economy, the city is a blossoming work in progress where simple labor indeed yields a rich harvest.
EAT Mushrooms cooked ala sisig, lumpia and tempura at the Mushroom Center.National Highway, Brgy Tagaran, tel: +63 (908) 408 6998
STAY Amity Hotel’s cottages are built over a pond. National Highway, Brgy San Fermin, tel: +63 (78) 652 2010
FARM For info on Gulayan ng Bayan and other local plantations, contact Rufino Arcega, tel: +63 (921) 384 3492.
VISIT Tabacalera warehouse in Brgy Turayong. Contact Jose Juan Plaza, tel: +63 (78) 303 8142