Bulacan is filled with hidden food gems, much like its neighboring cities, Pampanga and Malabon. It is in this province that you can find the likes of Mercy's Empanada de Kaliskis, Eurobake's famous inipit, and, of course, Bulacan's famous pastillas.
What makes Bulacan's pastillas stand out is that it is soft and easily melts in the mouth. The popularity of Bulacan's pastillas boils down to the process of mixing fresh carabao milk with a bit of sugar in a pan. It's a time-consuming process that results in a sweet and milky candy, but without the cloying feeling of granulated sugar when you bite into it.
Anyone can eat Bulacan's regular pastillas any day, but for special occasions, pastillas with Pabalat is in order. Pabalat comes from the Tagalog word "balat," meaning "skin" or "wrapper". It is the art of wrapping candies with colorful Japanese paper that have intricate designs. The wrapper can be used in different candies, but in Bulacan, it is solely used with their milky pastillas.
The pastillas are wrapped in vibrant, delicate Japanese paper, but with the ends of the wrapper longer-falling like a gorgeous, paper-thin waterfall. The long ends serve as the canvas of the Pabalat where the artist uses her craftsmanship to cut intricate and detailed silhouettes and shapes.
Pastillas wrapped in pabalat are often used as centerpieces during fiestas, but sometimes, these are carefully packaged and bought as pasalubong for homesick OFWs. It gained a following and boosted Bulacan's tourism that eventually led to Bulacan's first Pastillas Festival.
The tradition of Pabalat is, unfortunately, an art form that is dying. It is kept alive by only a number of Pabalat artists in Bulacan. Schools no longer include this in their curriculum and people don't have the patience for tedious cutting that requires precision. Natty Ocampo Castro, a second-generation Pabalat artist from San Miguel, Bulacan, is one of the Pabalat artists that continue to spread awareness of this dying art form.
According to Natty, there are two kinds of Pabalat styles in Bulacan. In Malolos, they don't use any pattern template or guide to make the Pabalat. They adhere to a freestyle cutting style inspired by their imagination or randomness. Natty's style of Pabalat, on the other hand, is one that is known in San Miguel.
In San Miguel, they fold the Japanese paper into panels and place a heavy material, like magazines and books, on top of it for days to ensure that the paper is as flat as it can be. This flatness of the Japanese paper makes it easier to insert a design template in between the sheets, trace the design with a sharp pencil, and cut the design out with scissors.
"Ang pag gupit ng Pabalat, huwag mong sisimulan sa labas. Lahat sa loob. Tsaka yung pinaka-maliit na detalye yung unahin mo," says Natty (When you cut Pabalat, do not start from the outside. Everything inside, especially all the minute details should be cut first). When she does a demonstration of the cutting process, one can get mesmerized, almost hypnotized, with how fast she can work. She can cut bead-sized holes, regular and cursive letters, and shapes resembling people and objects with ease. It's almost as if her hands and the sharp scissors are one.
Depending on the design and her mood, Natty can complete a design in 15 to 20 minutes while amateurs will possibly take longer. It's impressive, but as they say, "Rome was not built in a day." Natty only started working on her Pabalat journey when she was 52 years old and it took her a whole year of nonstop cutting and guidance to perfect her work, and for that, she thanks her Pabalat mentor-her mother, Nanay Luz.
Nanay Luz first learned about Pabalat when she was in 5th grade, but she never paid much attention to this craft because she was preoccupied with raising Natty and her family. When Nanay Luz's husband passed away, it was only then that she accepted most of the Pabalat orders that came her way.
The Pabalat design templates Natty uses are actually designs copyrighted by Nanay Luz. Most of her mother's designs are inspired by plants and flowers and anything that she deemed beautiful.
One of Nanay Luz's first Pabalat designs has a silhouette of a nipa hut. Natty says, "Yung una niyang ginawa, yung bahay kubo. Ang bahay kubo kasi nag re-represent ng Pilipino. Kasi yung una nating bahay." (Her first pattern was the nipa hut. The nipa hut is a representation of Filipinos. It was considered to be one of the first types of houses back then).
Nanay Luz's succeeding designs are mostly Filipino-centric. Two of her well-known designs, besides the nipa hut, are of farmers pounding rice and a woman clad in Maria Clara attire.
The Pabalat became Nanay Luz's livelihood until she was 90 years old, and she amazingly never needed a pair of eyeglasses despite her age. She dedicated decades to her craft which led to plentiful accomplishments and a legacy as a renowned Pabalat artist in Bulacan. All of these paved the way for Natty's reign.
When Nanay Luz passed away in 2016, she was 93 years old. It's been three years since then and Natty admits that she keeps her nanay's memories alive whenever she cuts the Pabalat. In one of Natty's workshops to raise awareness of Pabalat, she sometimes feels her mother's comforting presence. She whispers, "Mommy, diyan ka lang ah. Wag mo ko pababayaan. Stay ka lang diyan. Guide me." (Mommy, please stay with me. Do not let go of me. Stay there. Guide me.)
During Nanay Luz's last few moments is one Natty considers to be monumental and life-changing. She recalls her mother's last request, "Wag mo pababayaan ito [Pabalat]. Ito yung buhay ko. Dito na ako tumanda," and adds, "Wag mong pababayaan ito na makuha ng iba." ("Don't let this go to waste. This is my life. This is what I grew up on," and adds, "Don't let anyone take this from us.") Natty remembers responding with a promise. "Sige, mommy. Itutuloy namin" (Okay, mommy. We will continue your work).
Natty tries to keep her composure as her eyes turn glassy and as her voice cracks as she told us, "Hindi man lang naming mahigitan, mapantayan lang namin yung gawa niya, ayos na sa amin yun." (We might never surpass her skills, but to be just at par with hers, that would be enough for us).