For the past eight years and running, the Bright Leaf Agriculture Journalism Awards or BLAJA has championed the cause of a writing genre that has rewarded and continues to attract more adherents. It’s been a commendable annual projected sponsored by PMFTC, Inc., which has increasingly disseminated information on the contest on a national scale.
This writer had the privilege of serving in the two-layer judging panel that goes through entries in a variety of categories. Apart from the hefty cash prizes of P20,000 to P50,000 each, the winners received iPad Minis, distinctive sculpted trophies, and for the major winners, participation in at least a four-day jaunt to an Asian city.
For 2011, it was Ho Chi Minh, then Kuala Lumpur for 2012, Guangzhou for 2013 and Bali last year. This year it was Beijing for the 2014 winners announced last October. And for the first time, all nine winners were invited to join the cultural and culinary foray conducted from April 14 to 17.
The 9th BLAJA winners were: Cherry Ann T. Lim and Liberty Pinili of Sun Star Cebu, who co-wrote what won for “Best Agriculture Feature Story Regional” and was also declared the “Agriculture Story of the Year”; Gabriel Cardinoza of Philippine Daily Inquirer for “Best Agriculture Story National” and “Tobacco Story of the Year”; Harley Palangchao of Baguio Midland Courier for “Agriculture Photo of the Year”; Mauricio Victa of Business Mirror for “Tobacco Photo of the Year”; Henrylito Tacio of Marid Agribusiness magazine for “Best Agriculture Feature Story National”; Flornisa Gitgano of Sun Star Cebu for “Best Agriculture News Story Regional”; Malu Cadelina Manar of DXND Kidapawan City for “Best Radio Program or Segment” and Ruben Gonzaga of ABS-CBN Davao for “Best TV Program or Segment.”
Baguio-based photographer won for the nth consecutive time, making it to the Hall of Fame. He’d have to give way to newcomers the next time out. It was probably why he made the most of the foreign outing this year, quickly picking up a Mao cap and coming away with the most bags of souvenir items when we were given three hours to roam at a shopping district.
PMFTC Inc. officers and staff who shepherded the BLAJA contingent were director for external affairs Bayen Elero, director for fiscal and regulatory affairs Chita Herce, communications managers Dave Gomez and Didet Danguilan and communications specialist Marco Angelo Eugenio.
The media group included Business Mirror columnist Joseph Albert Gamboa and this writer among those who had serves as contest judges, plus Philippines Graphic magazine’s food and travel writer Ditas Antenor, Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Ann Marie Jambora and The Philippine STAR’s Czeriza Shennile Valencia.
Day One had us proceeding straight from the airport to our first grand meal, what we like to call a lauriat (lao diat in Fookien, which means a special occasion, and which usually consists of at least 10 special dishes) Well, for late launch at the two-story Huajia Yuiyuan Restaurant, the dizzying array featured 15 dishes served in quick succession, so that some were actually piled up above earlier ones that had yet to be totally consumed. This practice seemed to be customary in most of the restaurants where we had such a treat.
I don’t think I managed to taste all the dishes, given the way each one wound up getting stacked on our tables as if fast food was going out of style. And as I’ve always complained about lauriats, it would really help if one were able to be told beforehand and how many dishes in all to expect. That way, one can apportion one’s chambers of appetite more properly.
But the last item certainly proved interesting if only for its official name. The steamed rice came with “Semen Nelumbinis” and sweetened bean paste. It turned out that the curious item simply means the Chinese herb lizanzior lotus seed.
Burping in inscrutable satiety, we filed out of the old-style resto with red corridors and green courtyards, carved beams and pillars. Across the street was a lone hawker who had set up a table laden with his roast duck offerings, his meat cleaver at hand. Obviously the offerings were take-home specialties. Indeed, capitalism in China ranged from the corporate or family establishment to the individual entrepreneur, particularly when it comes to gustatory choices.
We were lodged at the Sofitel Wanda Beijing, five-star with French and Chinese architectural fusion features, from its delicately illumined grand lobby with sculptural adornments to elegant corridors that displayed splendid flower arrangements in crystal or ceramic vases.
After private time for the entire afternoon, the next assembly was for the second hearty meal for the day: dinner at DaDong Roast Duck Restaurant, the main one among the six popular outlets in the city, and where a nightly queue can sometimes stretch for a block.
That was how it was the first time I had this treat, courtesy of Arturo Macapagal who headed our country’s shooting delegation for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Thanks to his early reservation, we had a table for six just try out the “super-lean roast duck.” One of the most celebrated cooks in northern China, the master chef and general manager Dong Zhenxiang had made it famous, so that DaDong is listed among CNN Travel’s “20 Best Beijing Restaurants.”
But there’s more to the DaDong menu than the signature dish. In fact 200 more dishes are offered in the 4,500-square-meter restaurant manned by ta total of 300 chefs. For our BLAJA party that filled up two ten-seater tables, all stops were apparently pulled, so that these 16 dishes were served:
Cherry foie gras; Sweet pork ribs at Snowy River (with a server applying the “snow” by raining down with her fingers what looked like flour on the styling plate); Lake shrimp in spring tea; Hand-peeling bamboo shoots; Yellow croaker in aspic; Bean curd with Chinese toon; Traditional Beijing snacks; Lobster soup; ‘Cross Bridge’ leopard grouper; Chef Dong’s Fried prawn with spicy sauce; Stir-fried beef in spicy sauce; Fried scallops with Yunnan mushroom sauce; Sautéed duck and chestnuts in crispy nest; Sautéed Spring bamboo shoots with ‘Shepherd’s Purse’; DaDong ‘Super Lean’ Roast Duck; and Yogurt pudding.
Indeed, it was food porn for close to two hours, with phone and SLR cams documenting each new dish upon arrival. What I recall is that I enjoyed best the croaker, the grouper, the scallops, the lobster soup, and of course the duck served two ways.
Day 2 had us managing to shed off some of those calories by engaging in the staple itinerary that is climbing up the Great Wall from the Juyongguan Gate, or just a part of it for second-timers.
But those calories were ratcheted up anew with lunch at Tangrenfu Seafood Restaurant, where again a dozen dishes came in quick succession that they overwhelmed the lazy Susan. It wasn’t all seafood; in fact there were duck soup, braised pork, baked chicken, stir-fried beef, and a couple of exotic items: Sautéed Osmanthus fragrans and Conpoy.
City traffic pre-empted a visit to that Ming Dynasty Tombs, so that we had to go straight to the Olympic Green with its view of the Bird’s Nest main stadium for the Olympics and the nearby Water Cube. Then it was off to a shopping warren where we fitted in and out of narrow alleys filled with souvenir shops and exotic food items, among these live scorpions.
On our way to what would turn out to be another fine repast, the sly and streets suddenly turn dark. What we witnessed next was far different from the Spring phenomenon we had gotten used to, which was seeing all of these cotton-y filaments flying in the air, and which our guide said come from willow trees.
This time it was a sandstorm we actually experienced as we got out of our bus and walked several blocks to a special dining place, also on the CNN Travel list of Beijing’s 20 Best.
This was Capital M, Australian restaurateur Michelle Garnauff’s Beijing flagship and counterpart to M on the Bund in Shanghai, where some in our party had once dined. But this time we settled for a simpler, less strenuous if just as filling dinner; Elizabethan salad (soft leaves and fresh herbs layered with oranges and almonds, rockets, sippets and farters) Steak Diane (beef fillet in a brandy mustard sauce), and M’s famous Pavlova.
By the time ewe had washed that down with white and red wine, the sandstorm that we learned the next day was of record magnitude had died down. And so we could regale in the cool breeze out in the terrace, which offered fine cityscape views. Right across the street was the well-lit and very photogenic old gate of Tiananmen Square.
Standard fare it was for Day 3 – the Mao Tse Tung-dominated Square and the Forbidden City that for cineastes could only recall Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. Again, group photo-ops became the order of the day. But I still think all of us took more of the items we had relished in the food binge that was Beijing, courtesy of PMFTC, Inc. and the 8th Bright Leaf Agriculture Journalism Awards.
The 9th edition is already in the works, with roadshow tours and writing seminars scheduled for the Bicol region and Davao. More journalists should join this highly rewarding competition.