We are on our way to an Italian restaurant on the beach in El Nido, Palawan when my seven-year-old daughter sees a particular variety of vine creeping up a wire fence. “Baby cucumbers!” she exclaims. All thoughts of pizza are forgotten as she begins to forage for tiny, green fruit.
Wild cucumber, pipinong-gubat in the vernacular, is a discovery she made on a previous trip to El Nido last year, when we visited a family friend working on Tao Farm, located in San Fernando village. The northern end of the Palawan mainland is best known as the landing point for Bacuit Bay, whose dreamy karst landscapes and crystalline seas banner many Philippine tourist brochures. We had been looking for a temporary escape from Manila and, away from the usual Palawan tourist trail, Tao Farm’s sustainable practices and delicious produce offered a pace and quality of life that has inspired us to come back again and again since.
In those first five days on the farm, we also discovered talinum, a herbaceous perennial that grows abundantly in the area. We had it in a salad, a flavorful replacement for the lettuce that grows mostly in the country’s cooler upland regions and is hard to find in El Nido. The talinum was served with a vinaigrette made with a vibrant red oil infused with annatto seeds, and a golden vinegar flavored with mango — the latter an invention that happened when the farm had to use up a truckload of fruit delivered by a local producer a while back. Most of what we consumed in that week came from the area. If it wasn’t from the farm itself, it was provided by neighbors. The fish was from the nets of local fishermen. As was the squid. We even had bacon a couple of times. The meat was tough, but we were impressed to discover that the pig was bred on the land and the meat was smoked by the farm cooks. It was a self-contained system you would never find in the city, and only think of as happening in some faraway, if not imaginary, paradise.
Trendy terminology might tag it as “eating local” or “farm to table”, and indeed for some avowed foodies it could well be a lifestyle fad. But in this corner of El Nido, sustainable farming is a crucial part of running a sustainable business.
Tao Farm is part of Tao Expeditions, an adventure outfitter that offers sailing tours around the pristine islands of Palawan. The Tao fleet has 10 boats, and each one is capable of housing up to 24 guests on their five-day, live-aboard tours. During the peak seasons of December to February, it’s not unusual for all the boats to be completely occupied. That’s a lot of mouths to feed.
Volume requirements aside, logistical challenges also make growing food on-site a necessity — the Tao operations are 250km from Puerto Princesa, where the nearest big airport for commercial airlines is located, and the road between the two cuts through little else except primeval forest. Needless to say, the supply chain of goods from elsewhere isn’t always steady.
The town proper still doesn’t have a well-stocked supermarket. When we moved here part-time, one of our initial challenges was finding basic commodities like butter. A friend who has just moved here is still looking for a shop that can sell her jam.
Much wiser to the challenges of remote-island living, Tao’s head cook Anne Pansinsoy looks for neither butter nor jam when stocking her pantry. The first time I met her, the ruddy-faced woman was baking bread at the farm’s mess hall, called Kantina. Coconut trees are everywhere on the farm, and she was experimenting with using coconut juice to enhance flavors. The result tasted like some kind of tropical breakfast bread, a brioche-like treat hinting of latik, a delicious sweet syrup made from coconut milk reduction and sugar.
Anne said that before they started growing their own food at the Tao Farm four years ago, she would source supplies partly from the market in town, and partly from foraging. She would find, growing in the wild or on her neighbors’ plots, edibles like kamias or bilimbi, tamarind, papaya, lemongrass and malunggay, also called moringa. She would then design a menu around whatever was found.
Growing pains and gains
The Tao team had first tried growing a vegetable garden on Cadlao Island. Tao’s co-founder Jack Footit recalled that it was “eaten by the jungle” so they moved and settled on the land in San Fernando. For Jack, the new site ticked all the boxes: “There was a beautiful beach, it was protected from the elements and there was a water source.” It was the perfect place to build their main campsite.
The current property totals 24 hectares, stretching from the beach facing Darocotan Bay all the way to the mountains. Of this, Anne explained that the actual farming takes place on only a thousand square meters.
In the very beginning they were rewarded by good harvest, and they congratulated themselves on a job well done. They had, after all, worked hard, meticulously clearing and tilling the land. But then came the next planting season and nothing grew.
“That was when we discovered that plow farming is not suited to the tropics,” said Jack. Much of the fertility is found in the plant debris covering the soil. Clear that up and you take away most of the nutrients that will keep your plants alive.
Jimmy Fernandez, a marine biologist working on the farm, said this realization inspired their current practice of “minimal tillage”. After harvesting, they only dig at the soil enough to aerate it.
Jimmy filled me in on the other techniques they use. There is composting, of course, using the considerable kitchen waste generated by their boat expeditions. They also practice vermiculture and EM, or effective microorganisms, a blend developed in Japan in the ’80s.
I found it amusing that rum, beloved on the Tao tours, where it is served with pineapple juice to guests at sundown, is also a beverage consumed in the Tao vegetable gardens. To make organic pesticide, they cut up neem, marigold and aloe vera, and to this add a solution that includes a healthy dose of good old Tanduay.
Even though the farm occupies just a small area inside the Tao camp, aside from Jimmy there are eight other people looking after it. Two tend to the pigs, one takes care of the other animals and the rest tend to the vegetable garden and fruit trees. It’s a lot of work, especially without chemical pesticides and big machinery.
Adding to the complexity of their labors is the distance from any passable road. To get to the Tao Farm, you either take a short boat ride from the village of Dipnay, or walk 15 minutes down a narrow dirt path. If you need to get anything into or out of the farm, you have some substantial lifting to do.
Then there is the issue of water. At the beginning of our stay, we washed in outdoor showers. By the third day, the showers had dried up and we were working a hand pump. As the mountain source runs low during the dry season, the remaining water goes first to the Tao boats, so farm operations cease. Planting stops, and the soil is covered with mulch.
Despite the many challenges, the farm has had some success. Anne estimated that every day, the farm manages to provide three square meals to 24 of Tao’s clients, plus the meals of 30 employees. Thirty percent of the provisions on all of Tao’s boats also come from the farm.
The farm supplies the boats with abundant talinum. There are also papayas, bananas and coconuts. And then from the garden there are eggplant, okra, mustard, radish, pechay (a variant of bok choy), stringbean, sweet potato, mung bean and spinach. Tomatoes are available during the rainy season.
And let’s not forget those delicious baby cucumbers. The miniscule cucumbers we first tasted at Tao are slightly acidulous, but largely sweet. They are most of all refreshing, a nice burst of flavor in the mouth. At the time, we made mental notes to include them in a future salad recipe, or even in a drink — lightly crushed in water and mixed with lots of ice. But truth be told, we haven’t ever had the patience to make either. Whenever we come upon some, we tend to pop them almost immediately into our mouths.
The produce at Tao is usually prepared Filipino-style, sautéed in garlic and onions, or cooked in coconut milk. Tao co-founder Eddie Brock once made a particularly memorable melange of vegetables in coconut milk flavored robustly with cumin and served with mango chutney.
Meals at the farm are among the many things I miss whenever we go back to Manila, and the slow, soulful lifestyle a huge part of what my family and I look forward to most whenever we escape the city and return to paradise.
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Smile.