Tsokolate: Inside Cabatuan’s Handmade Tablea Factory
March 19, 2018
I know it’s getting hard to remember any social good brought about by the modern internet, but bringing back the tablea—and other traditional Filipino products of its ilk—wouldn’t have been possible if many of us weren’t assiduous uploaders of #FoodPorn on our Facebook and Instagram pages. And Ilonggo cuisine, without hyperbole, is a big recipient of this boom right now.
For those not yet in the foodie loop, “tablea” commonly refers to that oblong-shaped chocolate tablet that can be consumed either by straight-up eating it or—as is most popular these days—served as a drink. However, what many articles and blog pieces might have failed to tackle is how, for lack of a better word, “laborious” the manufacturing process behind it is. Because in today’s age, nothing screams “old-school” than seeing something produced without any aid of automation. For better or worse, Iloilo’s cacao industry still fits the bill perfectly.
One thing to remember before we proceed is that there’s no town—or even region—that can fully claim cacao as its own. Much like with how everything else developed in this world, every place has their own spin on how they manufactured and served cacao to the people who appreciated them to have claimed them as their own.
Now, with that said, here’s what we saw on our tour of a tsokolate workshop in Cabatuan.
We arrived at Sunburst’s Balay Tablea on a rainy Saturday afternoon where Ms. Catherine Villalobos (pictured above, pouring a drink), the shop’s owner and a self-described fair-trade advocate, met us. Despite her hectic schedule managing the business, she still teaches full-time at Cabatuan Elementary School.
Ms. Villalobos said, “Damo diri sa Cabatuan nagahimo tablea. (Each family) has a brew of their own, kag may style sila nga ila, may timpla sila nga ila.” [There are many people here in Cabatuan making tablea. Each family has a brew of their own, and each one has their own style and recipe].
While she admits to be fortunate in jumpstarting her business right as awareness in local cooking traditions began picking up in recent years, she maintains, “Ang inclination ko is more on the tourism, nga i-maintain gid ang tradition and the character because we’ve been known for that, and that is our identity. Daw less ang struggle sa market kung may niche kita.” [My inclination is more on tourism, that we maintain our tradition and the character because we’ve been known for that, and that is our identity. It’s less of a struggle in the market if we have a niche.]
While discussing how we would go about documenting the workshop, several groups of customers came in. MS. Villalobos, of course, had to tend to them first. Before she got busy, she pointed at the picture and say, “Si Nanay ina ang nagtudlo (sa amon) kag nag-pioneer diri, asta nga nag-produce kag nag-process na kami sang amon.”
[It was our mother who taught us and pioneered the making of tablea, until we eventually produced and processed our own.]
Much like with any food product, Villalobos explained that the quality of the tablea is dependent on the cacao fruit harvested, though the seeds are the only ones used in cacao-making. “They’ve undergone a certain type of fermentation nga required man for tablea-making,” Villalobos explained. What you see above is the fermented cacao seeds being roasted in a skillet.
After cooling, each roasted seedling is then peeled by hand by the workers. The whole process looked painstaking. Ms. Villalobos, however, said they are expecting to be provided a winnower by a government agency soon.
With the batch of roasted cacao seeds peeled, they are then ground into a roller made of metate, an extremely rare volcanic material which Ms. Villalobos says gives the cacao its earthy flavor.
The cacao is then mixed with grounded muscovado sugar, though Villalobos also said they are also making un-sweetened tablea products, depending on the number of requests they get in any given moment. The grounded batch of cacao are then molded into the aforementioned tsokolate tablets.
Even the process of wrapping the chocolate tableas is as exact as how they are made; “We buy the (sterilized) banana leaves for 30 pesos per kilo,” Villalobos said. For an operation that is dependent on manual labor, it’s remarkable how efficient the workers perform their tasks.
Although the tablea can be mixed with any hot or cold liquid, the only way to achieve that classic, malapuyot consistency, as demonstrated by Ms. Villalobos above, is by cooking it using a batirol or a wooden whisk over a medium fire.
We ended the tour with, predictably, hot cups of tsokolate.