Photo by Martin Espino

A Forgotten Ilonggo Delicacy is Still Being Made in San Enrique

By martin espino

A one-hour bus ride going to the hinterlands, across seven towns. That is what we went through just to confirm a rumor we have heard for some months already: that there is a town that still makes these papaya sweets that look like roses. The old-timers we talked to say that this delicacy has figured prominently in birthdays, weddings, and fiestas in barangays and towns everywhere during years past. Many know it as “rosita papaya”, but—at least, in the sleepy town of San Enrique—it is called “crema de leche”.

Lucky for us, the persons who made these treats live a few meters away from the San Enrique plaza. It was a gloomy Saturday morning when we arrived, and the only signs of life were the workers pouring cement on the road and the seemingly quiet house we were about to enter in.

We arrived just as the kitchen was bustling with activity. Our guide introduced us to Allen Joy Lademora and her “family”, which is composed of her sister, her lola, and two cousins. “Joy”, in her early 20s, is the oldest, and seems to stand as their breadwinner.

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Joy, right. Photo by Martin Espino.

According to her, the crema de leche is a staple favorite amongst the townsfolk. She has been making these treats for almost a year now, and she claims there are only two of them in San Enrique specializing in it. After graduating with a degree in Education and with no other immediate job prospects, she learned how to make crema de leche—as well as boat tarts and macaroons—at the insistence of ‘Lola Coling’, an influential community figure in her 80s.

Nakita na man ko bala nga may talent man ko ukon may creativity sa (pagluto). Amo to gin-approach kanakon (ni Lola Coling) kung gusto ko makatu-on paano magluto,” Joy said.

[Lola Coling saw that I have talent and creativity in cooking. That’s why she approached me and asked me if I wanted to learn how to cook.]

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The papaya strips are sorted by thinness after shredding. Photo by Martin Espino.

As expected of what amounts to a recipe that is handed down from an earlier generation, the preparation for the crema de leche is deliberately intended to be made by hand. To say that it entails a long and tedious process is an understatement.

For starters, Joy takes orders thru text (although she has since started a Facebook page to streamline the whole process). On the day we documented them, they received orders to make what amounted to 600 candies that would be due by Monday. So, they had to wake up in the early hours of the morning to begin cooking.

They start by shredding the papaya into thin strips using a planer. The strips are then sorted into “good” batches, which are then boiled in a large kaldero. After softening, they are then removed and blanched.

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Photo by Martin Espino.

On the other hand, the yema, which is the centerpiece of the crema de leche, is prepared the traditional way by cooking milk over heat on the stove, which is also stirred occasionally so it won’t stick and form lumps in the pan.

The blanched papaya strips then undergo another round of cooking in a pan with heated basic caramelized sugar. Joy explains that the strips are cooked when the water starts to thicken, and it should have a sticky-to-webbed consistency. Once done, the strips are carefully removed and arranged in a large plate to cool.

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The boiled papaya strips are cooled directly using the kitchen faucet. Photo by Martin Espino.

While waiting, Joy molds the yema into several balls while also adding a “tail” on each end. A strip of papaya is then added to form a stem, and another is layered over to form a petal. She goes on wrapping until the strips resemble a flower. The finished product, which looks transparent before being air-dried, adopts a starchier consistency once it hardens.

It won’t surprise anyone to hear Joy say that the preparation for ordered batches of the crema de leche—each of which she personally hand-molds herself because she thinks her family can’t master the whole thing yet—can last beyond midnight. She even sees to the delivery of the products by contracting a tricycle driver to transport the crema de leche to clients not just in San Enrique, but also in neighboring Passi City, too.

Despite all that, Joy finds all the time and effort worth it since the money she earns from making crema supports her lola, and even sends her younger siblings to school.

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The caramelized papaya strips are formed around the yema to resemble a rose-like shape. Photo by Martin Espino.

Just like any other struggling entrepreneur, Joy is also looking to expand. However, she laments the lack of recognition from the municipality. Once we mentioned that some government agencies was supporting the cacao industry in Cabatuan, she said she applied once to a program for micro-entrepreneurs, but her proposal was rejected because her product was listed as a perishable good; hence, it’s supposedly not ideal for transporting to the city for display.

Ang gusto man lang namon ang makilala ang amon produkto [We only want our product to be known],” Joy said. “Kag target man namon nga makapwesto sa city [And we aim to sell our product in the city]”.

As we wrapped up our interview, Joy received another call for 300 orders of crema de leche; they were due for Tuesday. If there was any indication that she was frazzled that she now had to make 900 pieces of crema in a matter of two to three days on mostly her own, she gave no hint of it. As such, we declined her offer of giving us a batch of the finished products. We reasoned that her orders are more important to them at the moment than simply wasting it as our pasalubong.

Photo by Martin Espino

For every single entrepreneurial success story we are conditioned to emulate, it seems there are a dozen more business owners like Joy who are struggling to stay afloat.

And Joy still dreams of teaching for a living.

Martin Espino is a caffeine-reliant, analogue-loving individual who writes in his spare time. You can follow him on Instagram at @frozen_armpits.