Pampanga is heavy with history, but getting there by bus lightens the load.
“This is Ms. Felicia Lansang, my auntie, who originated the delicacy’s making,” says Ramon Ocampo, holding up a photo encased in plastic. His hands are shaking as he says it. And I suppose it can’t be helped. Whether from age (he’s 78 now) or from the work, anyone’s hands would be shaking, too.
Where we are is at Ocampo-Lansang Delicacies, and I’m not sure you would call it a factory, or an office, or a house, because it’s all of that at once.
This is where they make the sans rival of Pampanga, perhaps its most famous dessert. It’s a small, layered cake: a recipe that’s been handed down from Dominican nuns during the Spanish occupation of the Philippines. It means “without rival” in French, though why the name is in French, I have no idea. Ramon never tells me.
Still, his company has been making it—completely unchanged—for close to a hundred years. It’s one of the last places you can get a literal taste of the past. And maybe, around here, given the number of people coming around and buying boxes, the cake’s name is particularly true.
“These people,” Ramon says of his aunt and of her friends from the church, “during the time, they were so religious that they spent their afternoon going to the Dominican convent and making vestments for free.” And how the nuns repaid them for their trouble (and perhaps for their faith) was they taught them how to make desserts, he explains, because they refused to take money. Some of that faith, you can still see here.
Ocampo-Lansang Delicacies is an old house with old statues of saints, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ watching everything. But inside—in the living room, in the dining area, in the kitchen—the desserts they make are older than those statues, older even than the house itself.
You see a lot of them in Pampanga, these heritage recipes. Sisig, a dish made from the skin off of pigs’ heads and chicken liver, has its roots in an old salad, and its first recorded mention is in a dictionary from the 1700s. The dish even has a nod from the late Anthony Bourdain from when he flew in to the Philippines. Nasing Biringyi, a chicken-and-saffron-rice dish, looks like the Spanish paella, but is closer to the Malaysian biryani. It’s said to be so difficult to prepare that it’s rarely ever seen outside of town fiestas and special occasions.
It’s this rich, culinary diversity and the equally diverse cultural influences that has made Pampanga a place to mark on the map. And while it’s easy enough to get there by driving (if you discount the traffic, which is always anything but easy), I owe my arrival here to bus travel.
It was the Scania Marcopolo that brought me here, a first-class bus that had just been rolled out recently. It meant several hours of asphalt and a good chunk of an audiobook.
Scania’s known for its trucks and buses, and the Swedish company is making a push for public transport in the local scene with buses that rival the ones you see when you travel abroad. Comfortable seats, charging ports, good leg room: it’s probably as close to a flight to Pampanga as you can get. And you don’t have to line up at immigration, so that’s something.
Over the entire day, we visit churches, houses, and restaurants. We visit the Alviz farm, with its famous rice delicacy called duman. We take a break at Everybody’s Cafe, which is famous here to, well, everybody, for serving Pampanga’s favorites. We see ancient bells, historical landmarks, talk to the people who are keeping traditions alive.
Our last stop takes us to the old San Fernando train station: where Filipino and American soldiers were set on the Bataan Death March, where they would be loaded into trains and delivered to Tarlac—some to their deaths. Now decommissioned, the station acts as a small memorial, with guns, helmets, art, and memorabilia from the era: a reminder that while time brings culture, all of it has to be paid for as well.
There’s a lot of history here. The food, the people, the places. Some of it wonderful, some of it terrible to learn. But everything is worth knowing. Worth remembering.
I board the Marcopolo, take one last look at the memorial, and say my farewells. Mostly to the soldiers, but to the rest of Pampanga as well.
Aurelio Icasiano III has been in media for 14 years: as a television producer and writer, travel correspondent, book editor, and as editor of an internationally-awarded men’s lifestyle magazine. He runs an electrical construction company by day but spends all too much time thinking about the next story.