The Chocolate Queen of the Philippines
As tears stream down Raquel Choa’s face, I wonder what grievous deed I have done – or hurtful words I have uttered – to make her cry at our first meeting. The chocolate maker has been telling me how she developed a deep love of cacao during some of the toughest times of her life. “I don’t know why I cried,” Raquel says, wiping away the tears with a tissue. “I was also sharing this with a group of six people yesterday, but no teardrops fell from my eyes. I can feel that you have an open heart and you embraced the story.”
It would be a shame not to do so, for Raquel’s account of her formative years is a deeply inspiring one. In adulthood, she has defied convention as a woman and a Filipino, rising above her circumstances to reinvent herself with a great deal of creativity and hard work. Raquel recalled that her parents separated when she was only seven years old; she and her brother were left in the care of their grandparents who lived in the remote mountains northwest of Cebu City. It was the 1980s, and the area was a hotbed of Communist insurgents (“some nights we woke up to gunfire when government troops clashed with the rebels”). Living a hardscrabble existence without electricity and running water, Raquel took comfort in her grandmother’s tales of Maria Cacao, a benevolent mountain fairy. She was the queen of a cacao forest who traveled on an invisible ship down the rivers to the open sea, setting out to export her cacao around the world. Each time her ship docked, Raquel’s grandmother said, it would turn to gold.
I later learn that the legend of Maria Cacao blended native Philippine mythology with some of the realities of the early Spanish colonial period. From 1565 to 1815, the lucrative Manila–Acapulco Galleon Trade exchanged Mexican silver for Chinese porcelain, silk, and other luxury goods, resulting in plenty of cross-cultural pollination between opposite sides of the Pacific. The Spaniards did not just introduce Catholicism to the Philippines (hence the name change of the pre-existing mountain fairy or goddess to “Maria”) but also a host of New World crops: tomatoes, maize, pineapples, chilies, avocados, and cacao – with the first specimens of the latter arriving on local shores in 1670. Edu Pantino, Raquel’s business partner, tells me the Philippines was the first place that produced cacao outside of Mexico. “And here in Cebu,” he adds, “we call hot chocolate sikwate, which comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) word xiqhuatl.”
Cacao trees flourished in the islands’ fertile volcanic soil and quickly took root in the tropical rainforests, like those of the mountains where Raquel’s grandparents lived. By the light of a kerosene lamp, she and her brother made discs of pure cacao called tablea for unsweetened hot chocolate, and to barter at school for supplies and rice – a journey that meant crossing seven rivers on foot. “Every day, when I was a little girl in the mountains, we used to drink sikwate, but without knowing that cacao beans are the main ingredient of chocolate. And we drank for only one reason: to sustain ourselves. My grandmother – Nanay Nila – always said that when she was eight years old, her mother died in the war because of hunger. Her mother told nanay’s older sister, that wherever you go, when you evacuate and run from cave to cave, to bring nothing but cacao. And it can sustain you.”
Raquel had realized cacao was something of a hidden treasure, and one of the most important plants in the forest. Not only did it relieve her hunger, but in a place without doctors and clinics, where women gave birth in thatched nipa huts, she observed how expectant mothers took a cup of sikwate before the final stages of delivery. “When I grew up, I found out that cacao is a pain reliever and a muscle relaxant. It’s also high in iron and fiber – and you know, our ancestors never knew this,” Raquel says. She also learned from an aunt how cacao was offered as a final drink to a loved one on their deathbed. And in parallel with Mexico’s Day of the Dead, Raquel was taught to prepare offerings of sikwate in remembrance of the ancestors on All Saints’ Day. “We believe the cacao is like a perfume, an essence.”
Raquel’s parents eventually reunited after six years and the children moved out of the mountains to join them in the overcrowded capital Manila, where they once lived. But life became even more difficult. By the tender age of 14, Raquel had taken on a series of odd jobs: becoming a housemaid, doing laundry, selling candles, flowers, and shirts. She picked up garbage, entered a slaughterhouse to collect blood from the freshly killed pigs, and even ran an informal street-side canteen.
Her marriage at 16 to a family friend – a mechanical engineer by the name of Alfred – proved a significant turning point. She left Manila to settle down in Cebu City, pouring all her energy into caring for her husband and eight children but still finding time to pursue her creative interests. And how did she meet Edu? I ask her. “Edu is a teacher by profession, and I’m a housewife. The reality, of course, is that I didn’t finish college, I stayed at home. When my oldest son was seven years old, Edu started to tutor my children. I’m an artist: I love to cook, I love to paint and everything. I thought life was work, because I’m used to work. So then I became a fashion designer, I studied garments and enrolled myself in a vocational school, I started designing and sewing in the garage – the chocolate was gone in my life.”
As Raquel continued to cultivate her talents, she eventually became a wedding planner and interior designer. “I was so busy, then suddenly the house burned down in a fire and everything was gone. And that was the beginning of my chocolate journey. I had 300 kilos of tablea [from a business that never took off] and I started doing chocolate buffets. Then Edu came along and put everything in place for me, all the communication. I’m an old soul, so I don’t know how to use a computer, I don’t know how to use email.”
She explains all this over tea and pralines at Casa de Cacao, her onetime family home that has since been turned into a mini-factory (for lack of a better word) where cacao beans sourced from small farms in Mindanao are hand-roasted and processed for Raquel and Edu’s artisanal chocolate company Ralfe Gourmet. “We go directly to the farmers, cutting out the middleman, and pay international prices so they get a fair deal,” Edu says.
Casa de Cacao is also the setting for what’s called the Chocolate Journey, an intimate cacao appreciation tour led by Raquel herself. I’m led into the next room where she demonstrates the tablea-making technique learned from her grandmother while growing up in the mountains. Edu mentions that it’s a culinary tradition has more or less died out in the cities. “Tablea used to be something Filipinos made at home; people typically had cacao trees growing in their backyard, but not anymore.”
I watch intently as Raquel begins pounding cacao nibs into fine grains in a stone mortar. She passes me the long timber pestle to give it a try, but I am clumsy and cannot replicate her technique, which allows the pestle to swivel while in constant vertical motion. “See?” Edu chuckles. “She makes it look so effortless!” It strikes me how the tablea-making process is a sensory experience that doesn’t just involve sight and smell and taste. “Can you hear it?” Raquel asks me. “The cacao nibs are moist.” She spoons the mixture into a circular, stainless steel tablea mold, presses down on the plunger, and voilà – a new disc of tablea pops out. Next up is the non-traditional cacao de bola, a solid, perfectly formed ball of the broken-down, compressed cacao, shaped entirely by hand and with a knot tied into the top. As she rolls it in her palms at lightning speed, the cacao oil rises to the surface and lends the ball a noticeable sheen, sealing in its flavor. This is Raquel’s own reinterpretation of the queso de bola, balls of Edam cheese coated in red paraffin wax that are a fixture at Christmas gatherings all across the Philippines.
We move onto a cooking station where several discs of tablea are dropped into hot water in a tall earthenware jug called a chocolatera. As the cacao tablets melt, the sikwate is stirred with a batirol, a wooden whisk equivalent to molinillos in Mexico. Raquel vigorously rotates the batirol between her palms to aerating the cacao water and give it froth. With the help of her youngest son, JP, who materializes midway through the demonstration, she pours the hot cacao into a teacup. I’m advised to take a sip and splash the drink around the palate like fine wine. Raquel’s sikwate is a revelation. It starts off predominantly sour, progressing to a rich earthiness and then a long, nutty aftertaste. It is like no other hot chocolate I’ve tried before – deeper, more complex, and vaguely reminiscent of the fine local espresso found on the Indonesian islands of Flores and Sulawesi.
“I’ve been dubbed the “chocolate queen” and the Philippines’ first chocolate sommelier,” Raquel says candidly, “but I prefer to be called a tablea-maker. Chefs at high-end hotels ask me, “How did you learn this? You know all the notes and flavors. Who did you train under?” I told them I learned from my time in the mountains, from the trees, the rocks, the rivers.”
Raquel and Edu have also been instrumental in founding the Cacao de Filipinas Fellowship, or CFF. “We want to make it a foundation to bring together the cacao producers of the Philippines and give them common direction. We also want to address the global shortage of cacao,” Raquel tells me. Another aim is to develop a system to promote high-quality cacao grown in the islands, and classify them according to geographical origin, as is practiced in Spain, France, Italy, and other European nations. Then there are ambitious plans for a cacao academy and training facility in the hills above Cebu – a place where farmers and entrepreneurs alike can learn the latest cultivation, roasting, and fermentation techniques while passing down a precious culinary tradition that has existed in the Philippines for the past three and a half centuries. “I want to tell the whole world that we Filipinos know how to make chocolate but in our own way,” Raquel says. “That’s why each time I travel, I keep on sharing tablea and this drink. I want to show people that this is our identity.” ◊