Families and businesses in Iloilo | Inquirer Business

Families and businesses in Iloilo

“We only serve tsokolate eh, not ah,” said Digna Barabatac, our guide in the Camiña Balay na Bato in Arevalo, Iloilo. “Rizal said that tsokolate eh is for family and friends, while tsokolate ah is for those you don’t care about.”

One sip of the creamy tsokolate eh (“espeso” is Spanish for “thick”) was enough to make me agree with blogger Jessica Zafra that this is the best chocolate ever. Tablea rolls were heated in an iron pot, boiled for an hour, flavored with alpine milk, stirred with a batirol (pestle). A blend of bitter and sweet, with no traces of powder, this was no tsokolate ah (“aguada” is Spanish for “thin”).


Camiña Balay na Bato

In 1860, Fernando Avanceña of the textile family and wife, Eulalia, built their stone house, with board walls, bamboo ceilings and terracotta tiles. Renovated by the fourth generation, Gerard and Luth Camiña, the grandeur of the mansion remains a century and a half later.


Twenty-four tree trunks serve as posts, a status symbol then. The main stairs bring visitors to the next floor, to a hardwood door with ingenious locks.

“No nails,” said Digna as we inspected the huge lock and the opening underneath, where spears could be put through to ward away foes.

A curio shop displays jams, bangles, sandstone sculptures, and handwoven patadyong and hablon, coveted by designers in Manila. We wandered through the oratorio (chapel) with its Sto. Niño, the sala with capiz windows, and finally to the dining room, to sip the best chocolate ever.

Mama’s Kitchen

Last February 2014, I travelled to Iloilo to talk on “Raising Children in Our Wired World” upon the request of psychologist-reading specialist Sharon Rose de la Cruz and husband, Jojo. Iloilo is a blend of the old and the new: ancient family homes stand beside newly opened malls, traditional cuisine compete with modern ones.

Just down the street is Sinamay House, where a not-too-distant relative in the weaving clan, Cecilia Villanueva, lives. Gorgeous piña, jusi and hablon are woven by hand in an antique loom.

Upstairs, I was delighted to see an antique telephone bolted to the wall that still works, while downstairs, a vintage car sits in the garage.  These would fetch a big price on the Internet, I half-joked, but the family would never part with them.


Cecilia’s daughter Corona Villanueva-De Leon has started her own family business: quality cookies with ingredients sourced from the vicinity. I loved the mango chewies, while my family loved the pinipig crunchies and chocolate crunchies.

“In the US I took cooking and baking classes,” said Corona. “Back home in the 1990s, I experimented with lots of stuff to make the cookies right.  It was hard. I wanted to give up, but Mother had faith in me. She gave me a loan to start Mama’s Kitchen, and whenever we had visitors, I asked them to taste the cookies. At first, I was so happy to sell a box of cookies a day.

“But in 1996, a prominent visitor tasted the cookies and immediately ordered 500 boxes for Christmas!”

Corona still personally checks the mix to ensure quality, while helpers prepare the cookies. Mama’s Kitchen is well known not just to Ilonggos, but also to foodies in Manila fortunate enough to have tasted her wares.

Nelly Gardens

Nelly Gardens in Jaro remains the home of the Lopezes, one of the country’s foremost political, economic and media families. Built in 1928 by Don Vicente Lopez for his wife, Elena, on two hectares of riceland (bought for one peso per square meter), the residence was named after their Nelly. Famed for its flowers (orchids, roses, milflores), Nelly Gardens had a mini-golf course, tennis courts, boat rides in the lagoon.  A rare wood, tindalo, was used for the floor in the main house, with narra for the walls.

During the Second World War, another daughter, Lilia Lopez, and her husband, Francisco Jison, stayed put in Nelly Gardens. Lilia and Frank started restoration after the war and bought antiquities to replace the artworks lost or sold.

Today, the mansion, available to the public for events, has lost none of its splendor. Features include the ballroom with a mezzanine for elders to watch the dancing below; dining room with a long narra table that can seat 24 guests, with pots of bonsai as the centerpiece; music room with the harp and cello; and the presidential suite used by Philippine presidents.

Contact Camiña Balay na Bato: (033) 336-3858, 0917-722-2359, e-mail [email protected] Contact Mama’s Kitchen Food Products: (033) 337-4221, 0920-950-6404. Contact Nelly Gardens: (033) 320-3075, (02) 721-2895, e-mail [email protected]

Next Friday: How the world’s fourth-richest man does not spoil his kids.

(Queena N. Lee-Chua is on the board of directors of Ateneo de Manila University’s Family Business Development Center. Get her book “Successful Family Businesses” at the University Press (tel. 4266001 loc 4613, e-mail [email protected]). E-mail the author at [email protected])

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TAGS: Camiña Balay na Bato, family business, food, Iloilo, Mama’s Kitchen, Nelly Gardens, Philippines - Regions, tsokolate eh
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