FEBRUARY is the month when the world goes cheesy with love. But it really should be going coco-loco, for they say chocolate is the food that brings on the feeling of romance.
Should this be, it’s time to check out Baguio’s best kept secret when it comes to sweet chocolate treats, and that’s in the pastry shop of the Baguio Country Club (BCC).
For the chocolate master is here, Art Nacuza. Breads, pastries and chocolate delights comprise the world of Nacuza.
As early as when he was a nine-year-old boy, he loved the aroma of freshly baked pan de sal in their family-run neighborhood bakery.
And that’s where the story begins on how he eventually became the master of all the goodies in the BCC pastry shop in a story that will begin in reverse, as it begins with his romance with chocolate.
Wearing his master chef cap and impeccable in his white kitchen robe, Nacuza leads me to his world, the bakery section of the BCC kitchen, where, in one end, the chocolate work goes on—his famous pralines and truffles.
He is full of enthusiasm in sharing the secrets of the craft as he stirs the chocolate in the melting pot, bringing it to just the right temperature of 29˚C to 33˚C.
“Passion and focus. That’s the real recipe of success,” he said.
He pours the melted dark chocolate into a silicone mold, which adds to the shine of the finished praline. He scrapes off the excess and overturns the mold to let the chocolate drip down the pot, leaving only what sticks to the bottom and the sides to serve as the base or shell of the pralines. It looks very simple, but, he says, it takes a lot of experience to make it look easy. In fact, he says, in top hotels, chocolate masters know when the temperature is just right just by dabbing a bit of chocolate where their skin is most sensitive, like the lower arm. A deaf mute puts it on his lower lip as that’s very sensitive to them, he said.
The chocolate is then left to set, some 15 minutes under a temperature of 14˚C to 17˚C.
“Never refrigerate the chocolate as it will absorb moisture,” he said.
Working quickly after the chocolate shells are firm, he squeezes a concoction of cream, the melted chocolate, glucose and cognac from a pastry bag of wax paper, into the pralines. He then spreads the chocolate base over the mold to cover the pralines.
When the pralines are cool and set, Nacuza says, there must be a little bit of crunch as one bites into the pralines.
Other chefs, he said, make use of a dryer (and a hair dryer will do) to get the melted chocolate into the right temperature should they get cooler while working the pralines, and there is also the cool spray to hasten the setting.
Nacuza got some feel of chocolate mastery when he worked as a pastry man at the Bus Stop coffee shop in Camp John Hay (CJH), when it was still ran by the Americans. But, he said, the chocolate shells were provided and all they had to do was squeeze in the filling.
Nacuza was already the pastry chef at a bakery in Nevada Square before that. But the earthquake struck and brought down the building where he worked.
He is quiet for a while as his memory goes back in time, in gratitude for a second chance in life. He said he crawled out a window, a high one normally, but that sank almost to the floor level when the walls collapsed.
It was not hard to find another job in the line of baking, as he was, even as a kid, confident in churning out oven-fresh breads and pastries.
“Somebody can just call me and I can tell the ingredients of pan de sal over the phone, and I would even know when they should remove it from the oven,” he said.
He recalls that, as a kid, they would get up at dawn to have the first breads (pan de sal) out from the oven in time for the early breakfast people. And “ummm,” he says, for he never got over the aroma of freshly baked bread wafting in their home.
The family bakery shut down when he was 15 years old, when he was barely out of high school. He swore that, someday, he would run that bakery again.
Finances did not allow it, but he followed the career of a baker anyway, earnestly and eagerly perusing books and magazines to be up to date on baking techniques and trends.
He was soon hired as a baker at the shop of chess master Eugene Torre along Abanao Road. The shop sold cakes and Nacuza would look at books and visit the Hyatt Hotel before the earthquake also destroyed it, look at the cake décor and whip that out the next day at The Grand Master shop of Torre.
He mastered the recipes of the usual fares the Filipinos loved, he said. Black Forest cake, Strawberry shortcake, cheesecakes. He knew one need not go to the expensive culinary schools to be a master.
“I found out that, if you are enthusiastic, it’s easy to learn the techniques,” he said.
At the CJH, he mastered baking more breads and cookies. Americans liked them simple, he said, referring to the bestseller, Boston Cream Cake, a vanilla sponge cake filled with pastry cream flavored with Grand Manier. Here, too, his fascination for pralines started.
When the Americans left, he was once again jobless, and, with a family and a growing son, he took on the job of a mere baker at the BCC in April 1993. He knew his résumé was already impressive at that time, and he was confident he would be hired, and so it was that his lifetime career found a real home.
They baked the famous raisin bread of the BCC, a secret recipe of many generations. With his expertise, the bakery grew as the BCC expanded. The pastry shop now sells about more than a dozen kinds of European bread, several American breads, pies, cheesecakes, Filipino fares, all kitchen tested and perfected by Nacuza.
On peak seasons, the raisin bread alone, its original recipe improved on by way of technology by Nacuza, sells about 5,000 to 6,000 a day, such as last Christmas season.
While at BCC, Nacuza sounded off his desire to train more in chocolate cooking. BCC sponsored him for a training at the Felchlin training center in Makati City.
“I was inquisitive,” Nacuza said, seeking all the answers to questions like “Why is the chocolate not glossy?” or “Why is it too soft?’
Then the BCC started joining competitions and winning awards. Or Nacuza and his team of managers and assistants would go down to observe exhibits like Chefs on Parade, if not to compete some more.
There were soon cross-trainings with top chefs, Nacuza already considered as one, at the Manila Peninsula, then known as a world-class showcase of pralines and chocolate goods, at the Shang-ri-La and Hyatt Hotel.
Because Felchlin loved him and because he used their products, the company and BCC sponsored him for a high-end training. The stint “All About Chocolates” brought him to learn the chocolate techniques around several key cities in Switzerland, where Felchlin’s mother company is based.
On the stainless work table of Nacuza, some chocolate petals were on trays, ranging in color from pastels to deep purples. His enjoyment in showing how they are done is felt as he explains that he merely rubs cocoa butter on plain cellophane paper, spreads the melted chocolate base and one can then play with every design in the stretch of the imagination. He runs an icing comb over the warm chocolate spread and rolls the cellophane over a PVC pipe and he produces chocolate rings. The gamut of shapes that chocolate can make is endless, and I see it as I watch a chocolate tree in front of me ready to be served at a wedding table.
When his schedule allows it, Nacuza teaches at the University of Baguio. I envy the students, because, for all the simple ways and humble, yet pleasant, demeanor of Nacuza, they may not guess that they have a world master in the craft, handing over in an ordinary class the skills all learned from the heart in the span of several decades of dedicated collection of techniques.
And, if there’s a treat, members have the good fortune to enjoy at the exclusive BCC, it is that Nacuza makes sure that every dessert served on the table is of a magazine-cover standard.