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To DIne in Madrid, By way of Manila

by Cherie M. Querol Moreno l Positively Filipino

They’re one heart in two continents. Marilou and Pablo Garcia-Morera keep one home in her birthplace and another in his. They have made the world smaller, living a few months in Madrid but mostly in Manila, where their children were born and the family business thrives on satisfying Filipino craving for the flavors of Spain.

Their enterprise, Espa-Fil, delivers products beloved in Spain to key cities in the Philippines.  Spanish restaurants were already around in Manila when the couple launched the business over three decades ago, but the requisite ingredients were rare if affordable only to those willing to spend half a month’s grocery budget on a day’s menu.  Spanish cooking then was intimidating, the specialty of Iberian expatriates or their assistants trained on techniques to preserve the cuisine’s characteristics.

Olive oil, pimenton de La Vera and the diamond of spices – saffron — are among the basic components imparting that distinctive aroma and taste emblematic of the country that gave the world Paella (Rice Platter), Callos (Tripe and Trotters), Fabada (Beans with Sausage) and Cocido (Mixed Meat Soup served Two Ways), where folks enjoy virtually four basic meals instead of three, the third one really a pre-prandial excuse for a tipple or more.

Espa-Fil enabled Philippine foodies to replicate the staples introduced in the archipelago by the descendants of the conquistadors.

From their headquarters in Mandaluyong City, Pablo and Marilou Bautista Garcia-Morera are bridging the culinary divide with their import-export firm.

While slurping $500-a-can-mussels in an episode of his earlier series No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain declared Spain as the one country where canning or bottling elevates the quality of the food.  The Garcia-Moreras aim to illustrate what the late great cultural explorer meant.

Their signature brand Molinera originated in Murcia, the province between Andalusia and Valencia, autonomous regions closer to Africa than Europe, hot arid, begging bold and assertive bites, thus birthing Tapas (small plates to nibble with drinks) and Paella (arising from the vast rice fields).

In the Garcia-Moreras’ hands, Molinera Philippines outlived its parent company, which shut down in 1995.  

The former Marilou Abesamis Bautista comes from a family of entrepreneurs that own a 65-year-old hardware store and a construction firm who helped start her and Pablo’s business.  But she credits Espa-Fil’s success to Pablo “who worked with all his blood, sweat, and tears to get this company to what it is today.”

She recalls the challenges they overcame at the beginning: “It was all trial and error, but we stayed in the market.  Our supply was continuous until the brand caught on.  Restaurant and hotel chefs would specify our brand.  It was difficult to play with price and quality especially in a country where price is priority. Now everyone who deals with food knows our brand.  Our best-sellers are our olive oil and canned tomatoes.”

Later they brought in wines and then expanded to personal care and household cleaning products, all from Spain.

Their headquarters in Mandaluyong City boasts a workforce of 90. From a staff of four and a warehouse in Santa Cruz in downtown Manila, they now store 300 different types of comestibles from Europe in four warehouses. 

Marilou credits Pablo for growing their enterprise from a staff of 4 to 90.

After almost 35 years, the Garcia-Moreras have handed the reins to their elder children Marga, 42, who earned her master’s in business administration at Boston College after graduating from Ateneo, and Pacholo, 39, also a Blue Eagle who completed his master’s in business administration at Instituto de Empresa in Madrid.  (Youngest daughter Marta, 35, studied law at Ateneo and resides in Madrid where she is following her siblings’ path at her brother’s alma mater.)

In Manila or Madrid, the Garcia-Moreras celebrate the holidays together: Pacholo and Pia Ugarte, Marga and Jeff Blake and their children Andrea, Alex, Sofia, Christian and Pablo Joaquin.

“With their advanced studies, they have put our company on a higher level.  The two of them are responsible for making the company grow double with the guidance of my husband,” says Marilou, who marched in 1974 as a Communication Arts major at the then-Maryknoll College.

She is thrilled to democratize the cuisine she fell in love with when she joined her best friend and fellow Maryknoller Techi Campa in pursuing studies in Spanish Culture, History & Arts at Universidad Central de Madrid on a scholarship from the Spanish Embassy in Manila.

You could say she’s paying that education forward by bridging what was once a culinary divide.  Her fascination for the culture extended to its people, especially one particular Madrileno.

Marilou met Pablo, an accounting grad working at a construction company, at a bar, where Spaniards typically congregate.  He was quiet, stood out in the raucous crowd.  She discovered he was learning English, ideally matching her newly acquired Castilian.  Six months after she returned home to Manila after completing her studies, her suitor followed and got acquainted with her family, country and culture.  He was as captivated as she was when she first arrived in Madrid.  They married in 1976.

Pablo dispelled what at that time were western misperceptions of his future wife’s homeland.

“In the seventies, some Spaniards still thought that Filipinos live in trees,” Marilou disclosed, passionately emphasizing to Pablo that the idea was “totally wrong.”  She said they also incorrectly assumed that citizens of the Philippines speak Spanish as do residents of South American countries colonized by Spain, which she found herself disproving, ironically, while by then being fluent in Spanish.

Paella Gigante begins to sizzle with extra virgin olive oil poured by Pablo, president of the nonprofit that sponsors the yearly event in Makati City.

They merged two cultures with a pact: “We both agreed not to insult or put down each other’s culture.  We realized that no one can question any country’s culture.  It is something that’s ‘innate,’” explains Marilou, who is proud to say that Pablo “already speaks Tagalog.”

Their children are also trilingual and bicultural, easily nurturing relationships with their Filipino and Spanish relatives and friends acquired from vacations on both sides of the globe.  

Forty-four years of marriage is a record for any couple.  The Garcia-Moreras attribute their longevity to patience and respect.

Marilou defers to Pablo at home and at work. The buck stops with him, even if their elder children now run the business.

“My husband (as she habitually refers to Pablo) is still the leader,” she says.  They go to work in the morning, settling into their own offices until lunch.  That’s when they sit down for quality time with Marga and Pacholo, dining while catching up with one another’s activities. 

“I bring our lunch to the office,” says the matriarch, who doesn’t order out.  “My family is quite particular about food. Perhaps because of our business, we can easily tell what’s good and what’s bad.”  

Cooking is a pleasure for Marilou, who always had meals ready for her children’s study groups when they were younger.  She followed no recipes but learned enhancements from her mother-in-law.  The secret, she confides, is the quality of ingredients.

“My husband suggested that I just make a cookbook of all my home recipes because people kept asking” for them, she shared the motivation behind Easy Spanish Cooking Using the Right Ingredients, which showcases her family favorites while promoting their products.  Its launch commemorated the pearl anniversary of their business.  A second cookbook should appeal to millennials as it is digital, per the suggestion of Pacholo. Compilation number 2 suggests meals for a two-week period plus wine pairings to educate those who would like the full experience of a Spanish dinner.

Easy Spanish Cooking Using the Right Ingredients

The Garcia-Morera table features a symphony of gustatory delights planned by Marilou a week in advance to manage her home crew’s time.

Their typical menu is diverse with a Spanish accent. 

“My husband eats all kinds of cuisine.  He likes Kare-Kare and loves Boneless Bangus.  I have mastered some traditional Spanish dishes, which I learned from his mom and sister.  So we have Spanish dishes quite often at home, especially when we have guests for dinner or Sunday lunches.”

Her children relish Mexican and Indian food, which she confesses to being off her repertoire, although her cookbook does have an Enchilada entry. 

Holidays are huge for the Garcia-Moreras, whose celebrations include Thanksgiving Day, the American feast day that seems to be commemorated more and more in parts of the Philippines, making loved ones away in the United States a little closer.

Their Christmas table should be a sight to behold.  But however extraordinary the delicacies Marilou decides to serve, the placemats and personalized goblets gifted her and Pablo by Marga elate her the most as these evoke a daughter’s appreciation of her parents’ example and gratitude for their inspiration.

San Francisco Bay Area-based Cherie M. Querol Moreno, MC74 Communication Arts, earned a 2019 Homecoming Triple-A award for advocating for Filipino American empowerment as a journalist and promoting safe environments as founder-executive director of ALLICE Alliance for Community Empowerment. She received her award in spirit.

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