Kesong Puti : Santa Cruz, Laguna’s White Gold
An hour before day break, more than a hundred milkmen are already busy milking hundreds of native carabaos in the lakeshore town of Lumban, famous for its intricately woven barong tagalog. Because of its wide green fields near the “dagat” as locals call Laguna de Bay, Lumban is the grazing area for carabaos owned by the makers of kesong puti in the adjoining town of Sta. Cruz, the bustling capital of Laguna.
By eight o’clock in the morning, the collected milk in sealed bumbong, a 15liter capacity stainless steel container, attached on both sides of a motorcycle, are rushed to Bagumbayan, one of the 26 barangays of Sta. Cruz where a hundred households are engaged in this much sought-after indigenous delicacy.
One of the biggest kesong puti makers is 55-year-old Gil del Mundo, whose two maggagatas (milkmen) deliver a total of 40 liters every morning to his home cum cottage,cheese factory beside the highway leading to the poblacion. Milk is strained in cheesecloth, afterwhich it is poured into a stainless steel casserole and heated for 15 seconds. After it has been cooled in a basin of cold water, a cup of rennet and a half-cup of salt are mixed in 15 liters of milk. The white concoction is strained again to remove whey (water) for 15 minutes.
“It is then put in a big plastic pail where it is mixed thoroughly by hand until it curdled,” explains Del Mundo, who, together with wife Virgie, owns 50 head of carabao (15 of whom are males). “The curds are then poured in rows of halabing (round moulds made of banana leaves) and then let stand for about ten minutes,” adds the fourth-generation kesong puti maker in Bagumbayan, a big barangay with more than 12,000 inhabitants located two kilometers west of the Sta. Cruz town center. “Two halabing are wrapped in a piece of banana leaf, tied with straw and encased in a talulo, a squared piece of dried sheath of beetle nut tree (bunga) that holds a basta (small bundle) together.”
Since the 19th century, Sta. Cruz, that straddles the banks of a river bearing its name that winds its way up to the eastern shores of Laguna de Bay, has been making its renowned kesong puti (white fresh cheese) for its countless consumers in the province who fancy its unique taste.
What makes this fresh cheese so delicious is that it is made from unskimmed native carabao’s milk mixed with salt and rennet, an enzyme produced by the stomach lining of a carabao calf that speeds up curdling and keeps the curd that forms from breaking up. Rennet, called bahay asim in Laguna, contains many enzymes, including a proteolytic enzyme (protease) that coagulates the milk, causing it to separate into solids (curds) and liquid (whey).
Kesong puti curd has a soft and close texture, fresh and a bit salty taste. This cheese originated from and is produced not only in Laguna, but also in Bulacan, Samar and Cebu. In the Philippines, it is sandwiched between toasts or pan de sal and even as a substitute for regular cheese in a hamburger sandwich.
“What makes our kesong puti stand out from the rest is that our makers use the traditional method of mano-mano, and the addition of just the right mixture of bahay asim to give it that distinct taste,” explains Sta. Cruz Mayor Ariel T. Magcalas during the press launching of his town’s Pista ng Kesong Puti May K ito! in Intramuros last September.
“Now that we have a dwindling population of native carabaos (Bubalus buhalis carabanesis), we are conducting a research whether milk of Murrah water buffalo would taste as good as that of a native species,” adds Mayor Magcalas, whose much-awaited kesong puti festival will be held on October 26-30. “Aside from this study, we also have a carabao dispersal program wherein an initial ten animals we bought were farmed out to caretakers for propagation and milk production purposes.”
(The native carabao is a domesticated subspecies of the water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) found in the Philippines, Guam, and various parts of Southeast Asia. An adult carabao weighs from 700 to 800 kilograms and has a lifespan from 18 to 20 years.)
“Because of kesong puti, I was able to send my three children and 12 grandchildren to school,” says Felicisima “Aling Felicing” Pangilinan, a 74-year-old widow who has been vending kesong puti at P120 per big basta and P60 each for the regular size in nearby towns of Laguna’ since the 1950s. “Daily I deliver orders in Calamba and San Pablo City,” adds the septuagenarian vendor who claims she knew every street in Calamba, San Pablo and other big towns in the province after mastering them for the past 60 years of pounding the road to earn a living.
Milk is produced only after the carabao has calved or delivered its offspring after a gestation period of 10 months. For two weeks, the animal is allowed to nurse its calf until it is strong enough, after which. it is milked at five o’clock in the morning everyday while the calf is still asleep. The local water buffalo gives out between two and four liters of milk a day for five to nine months after giving birth.
Kesong puti is low in fat and carbohydrate and high in protein. Unlike ordinary cottage cheese, the native soft cheese has no aging process. It can be served right after it is made, or stored for five days at room temperature, and two weeks if refrigerated. It can also be grilled, breaded, mixed into vegetable salads, or made into cheesecakes.
So, if you want a more adventurous dining experience that is truly Filipino, you know what to eat, and savor that distinct taste that dates back almost 200 years ago.