They say that you’re not a Filipino if you have not tried pastillas de leche, the milk-based candy that has captured the sweet tooth of our countrymen from Luzón in the north all the way down to Mindanáo. It is a favorite pasalubong among travelers and can also be served either as dessert or merienda. Pastillas de leche, or simply pastillas, originated from San Miguel de Mayumò in Bulacán and became widespread throughout Filipinas, particularly in Cagayán and Masbate.
A few months ago, the word pastillas gained some notoriety when ABS-CBN, lagging behind its noontime rival‘s AlDub Phenomenon, chose to exploit a pretty lass whose whimsical YouTube video made the rounds for a couple of weeks, in the hopes of winning the ratings war. In that video, the pretty but huffy sounding lass cleverly alluded to how she was cheated on by her ex-boyfriend as she describes the pastillas making process in sarcastic fashion. She was then recruited by the media giant’s noontime variety show, earning the nickname “Pastillas Girl”, and turned into a virtual tramp in a desperate attempt to beat the rival program.
ABS-CBN lost the ratings war (and is still losing it) while Pastillas Girl has since twerked her way to show business, but to the detriment of that beloved Filipino milk candy she herself had exploited and made fun of out of spite. Since then, any mention of pastillas almost always reminds everyone of ABS-CBN’s frankenstein vamp.
However, the coarse-mouthed, twerking vamp (or at least her YouTube video) is not that popular in faraway Abra de Ilog, Mindoro Occidental, my wife’s idyllic hometown. During a recent vacation early this month, I asked one of her teenage cousins, John-John, if he knows anything about the “Pastillas Girl Phenomenon”; he answered in the negative. Thankfully, pastillas in those parts is still spotless.
Pastillas making was introduced to the tiny Población (town proper) of Abra de Ilog by my wife‘s late grandmother, Zenaida del Mundo de Atienza, most probably after the last war. Ináy Zenaida’s roots are from Lemery, Batangas; Tito Raf, John-John’s father, believes that she got the recipe from there. While it can be argued that Abra de Ilog’s pastillas making did not reach cottage-industry levels, it is interesting to note that pastillas is not a delicacy in Lemery. The milk candy was also moderately popular during my wife’s childhood days as it was produced in many homes in the Población and enjoyed by practically all its children (Abra de Ilog’s town proper is so small one can scout all its streets in just half an hour).
Today, this milk candy is no longer as popular as before and is produced only in the home of Mrs. Priscilla Leído who also learned its production from Inay Zenaida. But the old lady and her household members produce this pastillas only when they receive orders.
There are only two ingredients: carabao’s milk and sugar, but the flavor is surprisingly heavenly (in other parts of the country, processed or cow’s milk is a common ingredient). There is another similar pastillas in nearby Paluán, but the makers there add flour. This means that the pastillas of Yeyette’s grandmother can be considered as endemic to Abra de Ilog, indigenized there by time and tradition (my family reverently calls it pastillas de carabáo for obvious reasons).
Many old towns in our country like to take pride of something native to them, something different that only they can lay claim too (even at a communal level, our country’s many towns are looking for their own separate identities, totally independent from others). Save for its breathtaking treasure trove of environmental wonders, Abra de Ilog doesn’t have much to offer. To an adventurous outsider hungry for novel discoveries, the place has no unique traditions or festivals that one can enjoy observing, no endearing cuisine to sink in one’s teeth, no folk music to enjoy listening to, or any other symbolic cultural trappings to research on. The place has only a handful of ancestral homes to explore, and its old church doesn’t even look that old or Baroque, unfit for selfie sessions. And whatever culture the town has to offer is but indigenous: its Mañguián (or more accurately, Iraya) people. But even they are now embracing modernity, bit by bit turning their backs away from who they really are.
Abra de Ilog’s local government now has this rare chance of preserving, conserving, and even promoting something that be considered as cultural. The ball —or should I say the pastillas— is in their hands.