Stranded By the Lake (embroidery & artisanal cheese in Lumban, Laguna)

South Luzon Expressway Southbound lane from Su...

South Luzon Expressway Southbound lane from Susana Heights to San Pedro. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many Metro Manila residents may no longer consider Laguna to be a travel destination. As an immediately adjacent bedroom community to the metro, a lot of workers and commuters in the city actually call the province home. It’s easy to take for granted how close the countryside and its charms can be. Driving down the South Luzon Expressway on a Friday morning, going against the flow of traffic bound north to Manila, one starts to sense the urban sprawl slowly melting away. The highway gets greener and greener, the plant life literally having a field day thanks to the recent schizophrenic weather pattern of sunny days and evening showers. Before you know it, the landscape starts going all rural on you, and the crazy city gets lost in the recesses of your memory.

The town of Lumban, Laguna lies 104 kilometers southeast of Manila. It is the fourth largest town in the province, with a population of 25,936 people within an area of 96.8 square kilometers. Named after the lumbang tree, of which only two specimens are left standing across from the church, it is also one of Laguna’s oldest towns. The province’s capital, Santa Cruz, as well as Cavinti and Pagsanjan, were all once part of Lumban.

For a time, Lumban was the center of all missionary activities in Laguna. Lumban Church, completed in 1600, was the first stone church built in the province. It was also in this church where the Holy Sacrament was first celebrated by the Franciscans outside Manila. The church and convent complex also served as a resthouse for Franciscan monks from 1606 to 1618.

Lumban, Laguna

Lumban, Laguna (Photo credit: ~MVI~ (bonn-ed))

The Franciscans are said to have brought the craft of embroidery to Lumban. It is the only town in Laguna where embroidery has thrived as a major industry. The streets of the town are lined with shops displaying barong tagalogs, ternos, and other embroidered works of art. Connoisseurs of fashion and handicrafts all troop to Lumban to get their fix of fine needlework. Lumban’s embroidery earns its distinction from its extraordinary refinement and intricacy. The town’s main objective is to maintain its claim as the embroidery capital of the country, despite the presence of other challengers.

Wilfredo Paraiso, the amiable Mayor of Lumban, explained to us how Lumban first started celebrating a Barong Tagalog festival during the town fiesta in 1998. This got expanded to a full-on Burda (embroidery) festival in 2001, and has continued as such for the past 5 years. The Lumban Municipal Hall shoulders all expenses of festival. They also coordinate with the DTI (Dept. of Trade and Industry) for help in organizing the town’s participation in trade fairs around the country.

One barong passes through at least four hands before it is finished. First the pintor or design painter outlines the design on the fabric, then it goes on to the burdadora who sews the actual embroidery, then some more ornate pieces pass through the caladera who pulls out threads from the cloth to produce the delicate open-weave effect known as calado, then the embroidered panels are finally sewn into a complete piece. Beyond the Philippine clothing market, finished outfits are also exported to Hong Kong, the USA, Japan, and Spain

Barong Tagalog

Barong Tagalog (Photo credit: Mommysaurus75)

I got to speak with Marivic Gordovez, president of the Lumban Embroidery Association (LEA), and a veteran of the embroidery business who has been running her shop La Burda de Filipina, Tatak Lumban for the past 14 years. She counts famous Filipiniana designer Patis Tesoro among her clients. LEA was just established last July 27, 2005, and is an endeavor initiated more by the newer generation of burdadoras. The association is 42 members strong, representing 80% of the embroidery houses in Lumban. Its objective is to unite embroiders and producers, and to enforce consistent standards in price and quality to ensure the industry’s continued sustainability. Each burdadora has her own forte in terms of a particular embroidery technique, be it emboss, shadow or ethnic styles. A barong may be crafted from Chinese linen, the cheapest and lightest fabric for barongs, traditional jusi, or piña , the most premium material which originates from Aklan. There is piña cocoon, a slightly coarser type of piña, and piña orig, the most delicate kind. A first-class barong sewn from the finest pina fiber can cost from around Php3,500 to 12,000 depending on size, cut, and the complexity of the embroidery. A project that the LEA has proudly notched in its belt is the Saludo sa Lumban fashion show, showcasing the best of Lumban fashions. A future goal is to eventually put up House of LEA, a cooperative fashion house that will serve as an umbrella trademark for all LEA members. Other clients and supporters of LEA members include former President Corazon Aquino and top designers Renee Salud, Rajo Laurel and Eddie Baddeo.

The passing on of the embroidery tradition and skills has been ensured by including their teaching in the home economics subject of the local schools. Professional training programs are also being developed with the assistance of Canadian Executive Services and the DTI. The University of the Philippines has also been coordinating with the town regarding a plan to put together and publish a coffee table book on Lumban and its embroidery industry.

The charms of Lumban are not completely based on clothing, but also on cooking. The dish most identified with the town is Guinataang Hipon (Shrimp in Coconut Mik). It is a mildly spicy shrimp dish, made creamy with coconut milk, that goes well with warm Lumban puto or steamed rice.

List of Philippine dishes

List of Philippine dishes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although not the town’s major industry, it is widely acknowledged that Lumban produces the finest Laguna white cheese in the country. Lumban cheese is creamier and much fresher tasting than the white cheese you can buy on the street or stores, reminiscent of smooth cottage cheese. Testimony to this is the fact that the De Ramos family supplies their fine cheese to such renowned Manila restaurants as Ilustrado, Cravings, Makati Skyline and Lush Life. The De Ramoses have been making cheese for four generations, more than 100 years. Only carabao’s milk, said to be much creamier and less sour than cow’s milk, is used for the cheese. One pail of fresh carabao milk a day is delivered from carabaos pastured in Barangay Wawa, also in Lumban. Every 100 gram portion of cheese is still individually wrapped in a circle of banana leaf as a nod to tradition. The cheese goes perfectly with pandesal, but Lumbeños are also known to enjoy it with their rice.

Lake Caliraya

Lake Caliraya (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once you’ve had your fill of the town’s dresses and dairy, then it’s time for some deep water. The province of Laguna curves around Laguna de Bay like the reverse mirror image of the letter “c”. As befitting a province named after a lake, each town is closely identified with a body of water: Los Baños has its springs, Pagsanjan its (in)famous river, Lumban has Lake Caliraya. The Lake was created in 1937 by US Army engineers by flooding the Cavinti valley of the Sierra Madre mountain range to supply water and generate hydroelectric power for Manila. Situated at an altitude of 400 meters, and 50 meters at its deepest point, the lake is well-known as the bass fishing capital of the Philippines and as a windsurfing, jet skiing, water skiing, boating, golf, and camping haven. For most captives of Caliraya’s charisma, the lake’s most picturesque point rises at the site of the old spillway. A small circular structure, the spillway is commonly mistaken as a lighthouse, chapel, or bell tower. Its exact actual function may be too technical to explain, but over the decades it has also served as backdrop, inspiration, sanctum, and shrine for artists and romantics from all places and of all persuasions. Looking back down on the city from the edges of Caliraya, the streets, grids, and blocks form a delicate pattern of humanity, boldly embroidered onto the terrain like the grandest terno you could ever imagine.

How to Get There

Take the South Luzon Expressway up to Calamba City, then the National Highway towards Los Banos and Victoria. Lumban is just past Pagsanjan town. In light traffic, the drive will take less than 2 hours. An alternative route, longer but more scenic, is east via Ortigas Extension to Antipolo then around Laguna de Bay, Lumban is just downhill from Paete.

Resorts in Lumban

Lake Caliraya Country Club: Bgy. Lewin, Lumban, Laguna. Facing Kalayaan town to the north

Caliraya Re-Creation Center: Bgy. Lewin, Lumban, Laguna. Facing Kalayaan town to the north

Caliraya Hilltop: Bgy. Caliraya, Lumban, Laguna. Facing Cavinti town to the south

Official seal of Municipality of Lumban

Official seal of Municipality of Lumban (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What’s On & Expat would like to extend our gratitude to the Department of Tourism, the municipal government and the people of Lumban.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2006

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  1. “Shooting the Roughly Blazed Paths” to Pagsanjan Falls | Stories of My Wandering Feet (& Mind)

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