What's So Special About Laguna's Kesong Puti?
Choose Philippines | Mar 09, 2016
The Humble Philippine Kalabaw
The Philippine carabao (Bubalus bubalis), regarded by many as the country's national animal, has been an integral part of Filipino heritage and agriculture for thousands of years, being a beast of burden that is also an excellent source of milk, meat, and hide. The kalabaw was probably introduced to the Philippines by Malay immigrants in 200 BC, and was used to plow rice fields all over the archipelago. Apart from that, carabao milk is also prized for being one of the creamiest to be produced naturally by any animal, and is often processed into cheese. Its tough, leathery hide was also used as a form of armor by primitive Filipino tribes.
For many, many years, the Kalabaw has been an integral part in Filipino agriculture, heritage, and economy. Its rigidity as an animal has made it the unofficial mascot of the Filipino farmer, simple in virtues and pleasures and able to withstand any form of hard work. However, no town or region in the Philippines prizes the Kalabaw more than Sta. Cruz, Laguna, the capital of Kesong Puti.
The Mozzarella of the Philippines
When one thinks of cheese-making regions, one imagines a lush European landscape, with rolling hills, grape vineyards, and a cool, cool weather. One would not imagine a tropical country like the Philippines, with its coconuts and EDSA traffic. However, surprisingly, our beloved country is also capable of producing cheese, which many consider as the “Mozzarella of the Philippines”.
The process of making cheese is simple: one would take fresh milk, either pasteurized or un-pasteurized, treat it with coagulant such as vinegar or rennet, and flavor it with salt. One would that strain it again and again, removing all the liquid whey, mold it into shape, and age it. The process of making kesong puti is roughly the same, sans the aging: fresh milk is taken from a Kalabaw and would be treated with rennet and flavored with salt; it is then passed through a cheese cloth several times, and is lastly molded and sold on fresh banana leaves. Because of the lack of aging for this cheese, most kesong puti only last about a week in the fridge, and about 2 days if left at room temperature.
Home of Kesong Puti
Sta. Cruz is situated along the coast of Laguna de Bay, and offers vast, fertile plains for the Kalabaw to graze upon, as well as land to plant and farm crops. The small town has stayed virtually the same since its foundation, and has survived countless disasters, both natural and man-made. It should also be pointed out that Sta. Cruz was a very important battleground during the Philippine Revolution of 1899.
But the short shelf life and lack of sophisticated cheese-making equipment never stopped the people of Sta. Cruz, Laguna, who have been making kesong puti ever since the town’s inception in 1602.
However, in spite of its status as the kesong puti capital of the Philippines, over the years, it has seen a steeper and steeper decline in terms of kesong puti sales, and if sales go down, production goes down as well. In 2000, it wasn’t surprising to see every other house in Sta. Cruz to have a small stall outside selling handcrafted cheese, but now, 15 years later, it would be a surprise to even find one. Perhaps it’s the short shelf life of about 2-5 days that discourages producers, or the lack of effective packaging, with the cheese simply being sold on banana leaves instead of the standard blocks sold worldwide.
Regardless, Sta. Cruz loves its cheese, so much that they hold a festival in its honor every March, featuring everything that is to love about this wonderfully unique Filipino cheese. So enjoy your cheese, knowing that you’re helping preserve a hundred-years old tradition of cheese-making that is as old and culturally significant as the Kalabaw itself.
But the best way to enjoy kesong puti would still be to melt it with toasted pan de sal and wash it down with tsokolate. Enjoy!
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