The ‘CEOs’ of Sagada


SMALL is big.  Meet George Dapliyan and his wife Jessica, whose newfound venture as one of the small producers of the now famous high-quality “Sagada coffee” became an overnight success in this quaint yet scenic mountain resort town in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR).

The Dapliyans started their coffee business  right after the nationwide lockdown at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic,  by harvesting their Arabica coffee beans  which were grown in their backyard.

The Arabica variety, which makes  up 60 percent of the world’s coffee but thrives only in the country’s highland areas like CAR,  was  already a fast-growing crop  before the lockdown.  “Sagada coffee,”  on the other hand, became one of the favorite blends in local coffeeshops merely by word of mouth from foreign and local tourists who had immersed in the town, which has lately been tagged as one of the major international ecotourism destinations.

Still, its coffee production was merely a backyard crop since the local farmers were dependent on high-value vegetable crops.

According to Jessica, she started their business by converting the ground floor of their house into a coffeeshop, being strategically found near the outskirts of the población, or town proper. It turned out that the coffee shop was more of a showroom since it became a hangout for visiting traders   looking for additional supply of the Arabica coffee because of its big demand in Metro Manila.

“We never expected that our backyard business would  prosper in a pandemic. We just wanted to survive the crisis,” says George, a Baguio State University-trained forester, who decided to plant coffee before the pandemic since he was having problems sustaining the production of  bee honey  from his  wild sunflower flower farm due to the recent surge of erratic rainfalls in the region.

According to the couple, they never had any formal training when they decided to shift to coffee farming. “Being natives of Sagada, we know our land and what is best to make it productive while  conserving our environment,” says George.

Although they still continue to sell bottled honey, he recently transferred its production  near Buguias, Benguet, and converted their farmland into an upland  coffee plantation. Instead of buying coffee from nearby backyard farms to cope with increasing local demand of their “Dapliyan Coffee” brand,   he opted to plant 3,000 upland coffee seedlings last year.

Natural rainfall

Meanwhile, Sagada’s natural rainfall all year round has become a blessing for local vegetable farmers like Linda Atiwag,  who sells vegetables near the local municipal hall;  and  Agay Tamy, a regular vendor  during  the  town’s “market day”  every weekend.

Atiwag says their produce, which are displayed for retail and wholesale,   were normally  brought by  visiting traders for distribution  in major  urban centers. She  says they really wanted their vegetables to be more affordable, but  they were dependent on agricultural inputs if they were to  be  commercially viable. This explains why Atiwag says she sells Sagada onions at P250 per kilo in the retail market,  though it’s already  half  its  regular cost in urban centers after being peddled by middlemen.

Preserving a cultural tradition

A VISIT to Sagada isn’t complete without a meal at the Pinikpikan House. Its owner,  Helen Omaweng, 57, says she had to stop its operations—after 19 years—for almost two years, only to reopen  again last December when tourists have began returning as the local government loosened its Covid-19 restrictions.

Being a member of the Applai community, she found it an obligation to  serve  pinikpikan, which is only being offered  in her restaurant  to continue to promote a “cultural tradition.” The Applai indigenous people, often referred to as Kan­kanaeys even if they have different identities, are known to continue observing their own customs and traditions during occasions like weddings, deaths and other village-related activities, including convening to do the  ceremonies for Kabuyan as their supreme being.

Pinikpikan, a “must-cook”  food during these festivities, is prepared by beating  a live native chicken with a stick prior to cooking, bringing the blood to its surface to improve the flavor of the dish. The chicken is then hung by its feet and briefly beaten with a stick, the feathers are then removed using a blowtorch, which adds to its smoky taste.

The cutting up of the chicken is, in itself, a ritual process since it has to be handled by an elder who examines its organs and bile.

Cooking is done like the tinola, with ginger being mixed for flavor, but with the salted pork locally known as etag to add flavor to its soupy broth.

Surviving as a people

OMAWENG admits that she has to continue hurdling the problem of serving  a local  cuisine that may be considered in breach of the Philippine Animal Welfare Act, which prohibits the “torture” of animals.

“I don’t want to comment on this,” says Omaweng, referring to the Philippine Animal Welfare Act of 1988, which prohibits “any person to torture any animal.” “It’s our tradition and I intend to preserve it,” she says.

Surprisingly, while foreign governments had been criticizing the pinikpikan and dog meat, which are traditional comfort food in the Cordillera region, Omaweng says most of her customers are curious foreigners.”

“I never heard any of my foreign customers complaining about the food. That means they appreciate it,” says Omaweng, who has been serving only pinikpikan since she reopened her restaurant with help from her two daughters who are public-school teachers.

“Actually, my problem now is that it’s more difficult to find local helpers  because of the recent surge of restaurants and lodging inns,” she says. But only the locals are allowed to set up  new businesses  since the local government has decreed  a ban on outsiders.

Her neighbor, Evelio Aspoen, a 48-year-old storeowner who processes etag for commercial production, agrees that  their customs and traditions must be preserved if they were to survive as a people.

“Since our forefathers’ time, our village has been known for  cooking pinikpikan with the etag,  which  some people consider unsanitary,” he says.

One local writer concedes the etag “may not be appealing to the uninitiated because it has a foul odor and most often has maggots after several days of air drying the meat, probably because of its exposure to flies.” During its aging process, the meat is then often covered on the surface with a thin layer of milky white molds similar to the process of aging cheese.  The molds are then rinsed off, and the etag is then “safe and ready to cook.”

Every February, the residents and the local government of Mountain Province  even mount an  annual celebration of the Etag Festival if only to highlight their favorite  preserved meat and  their tradition.

That also explains why  Esther Pecdasen,  at 91,   continues to  plant  traditional  upland rice and camote, which the natives consider their staple, and sells them during the weekend at the market through her daughter and other relatives who put up their own food stalls.

“We are a proud people, and we want to show that we will always have an abundance of nature’s bounty because of our ancestors,” she says.

Indeed, the “CEOs” of Sagada may seem worlds apart from the business titans who gather yearly, also in a cold mountain retreat in Switzerland. But they do realize they have a unique wealth that no one else can take from them. And for that, they always feel blessed and grateful.

*Joel C. Paredes has been a journalist for over four decades, with stints in both the local and international media.  He was once director general of the Philippine Information Agency, and holds degrees in history and industrial relations from the University of the Philippines.

Image credits: Nonie Reyes