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ensaimadaIn my heart, I long for the pine trees of Baguio, the way the pine needles glistened in the bright sun. I miss the Christmas feeling of early morning Simbang Gabi at the Pink Sisters. I miss the flute like voices of a particular Christmas record sung by French nuns. Their particular perfection was “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella”. I miss my beloved classmates and our fun caroling sessions, I miss my Concert Chorus friends and the memories of caroling in the lobbies of those 5 star hotels in Manila. I miss the moment of consecration at Midnight Mass and how the choir would sing, “Joy to the World”.

I miss the noisy Christmases with my brothers and sisters and cousins and the bright sunshine of the tropical lowlands, and the bright crisp light of the Baguio cloud forests. Christmas is loud in the Philippines, a contrast to the quiet, sedate New England Christmas with white candles in the windows.

This Christmas I went on a hunt for Queso de Bola, the sharp, almost crumbly cheese that appeared on my lola’s table at Christmas, along with a salty Chinese ham and myriad confections presented in bright red and yellow cellophane. I was a tiny child when I was first introduced to queso de bola, ensaimada, lechon, flan, and jamon.

I noticed a few years ago that the classic queso de bola was lost in translation here in the States. What was being sold at Christmas was a mild edam cheese, round and coated in wax.

As Christmas approached this need for Queso de Bola began to assert itself. I went for a hunt in New Bedford’s Portuguese markets, hoping that the shared international history of this old colonial power in the Far East (the spice trade, the colonies of Macau, Goa, and Timor) might have provided a queso de bola tradition. The same shared history had provided us with ensaimada and bacalau.

There were, indeed, quesos de bola everywhere we went. But they were not sharp or hard. Finally, in the last store, I shared my plight and the shopkeeper thoughfully disappeared into the back and came out with a large wheel of cheese. He said, “Sharp and Hard.” The cheese is called, “San Jorge” and is from the Azorean Islands. I ate a sliver. Home. That was the taste. We bought two pounds and brought it home. We also brought home perfect little flans.

My kids loved the extremely noisy California Christmases with uncles and aunties and cousins and running around outside and then going to the beach for a big walk. That is what they remember. In the midst of all this nostalgia for things past, I realize that this New Bedford will be their memory too, so great effort are made to be jolly. We string the house up with colored lights, play Christmas carols day and night. It isn’t easy, being part of the diaspora. One makes it up as one goes along; grabbing from what is available to come up with something that resembles what is missing from far away.

On Christmas Day, we have a Filipino breakfast. Ensaimada, pan de sal, longanisa and tapa for the carnivores. We have otap, pastillas de leche. We hang the parol that my family in Manila sent us. These are little tastes of the Philippines. These small treats have shaped the childhood of my kids and filled them with fond associations for the Perla del Mar de Oriente.

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