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Artisan cheese and coffee for the brave

Gourmet Keso

By Winnie Velasquez,VERA Files

It all started on a lark but sometimes the best ideas come from a restless mind that finds stimulation in a new environment.  Public defender Xilca (pronounced Chill-ka) Alvarez-Protacio, 31, was at a crossroads in her life two years ago when she attended a forum organized by the Gawad Kalinga  Center for Social Innovation (GK-CSI).

Frustrated by the realization that many poor litigants were repeat offenders and 95 per cent of their crimes were the result of poverty, she thought that the last thing her clients needed was another lawyer.  "What was essential was livelihood since they couldn't get jobs because of their criminal records." she said. Initially, she and some college students set up Clean Slate exclusively for probationers and parolees in Makati City. The small business produced dishwashing liquid, fabric conditioner, and moisturizing liquid hand soap.

A day after the GK-CSI forum, she joined some GK officers on a trip to the Enchanted Farm in Angat, Bulacan which was then being developed as a village university and Silicon Valley for social enterprises.  What she found was more than two hectares of GK homes, an unfinished multi-purpose hall, plans for making an industrial kitchen, some plants and crops, a piggery, and acres of idle land overgrown with wild grass.

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Then the idea struck her: why not a goat farm. She had seen a successful winery with a goat dairy on a visit to South Africa earlier that year. "I 'kid-dingly' suggested that Gawad Kalinga emulate this as agri-business . We can even call it GK, I teased, short for Gawad Kambingan! And all the products can be called GK, too, I added, like Goat Keso, Gatas ng Kambing, Gourmet Kaldereta!

GK Founder Tony Meloto thought it was a good idea and challenged Xilca to do it. He also gave her a copy of his book which inspired her and by February 2011, she was all set.  She bought two dairy goats and transported them to the farm. What followed were months of  intensive research and experimentation.  Before long, they were producing artisan cheeses to the satisfaction of local gourmets.

Five months after they started producing Gourmet Keso, some French students who had volunteered to do humanitarian work at the farm were pleasantly surprised to find that the GK community makes cheese. They were so thrilled they volunteered to be the salespeople in the weekend market. "I will forever be grateful to them for all their online marketing tactics and promo material they still excitedly do even half-way around the world for Gourmet Keso, what they affectionately call the French-approved cheese," Xilca says.

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Gourmet Keso has been well-received at local food fairs. At the annual Rockwell's Ultimate Taste Test, it was cited as Winner  number 7 among a wide array of organically produced products. At Mercato Centrale at The Fort, people think it is imported cheese and get a pleasant surprise when they discover that it is produced at the Enchanted Farm.

Cafe de Sug Sulu CoffeeGourmet Keso comes in the following variants: feta in extra virgin olive oil, ricotta, plain (chevre) goat cheese, chevre with garlic and herbs, chevre with cashew and truffle salt, and kesong puti (carabao cheese).

While at the GK Enchanted Farm, Xilca met the GK area coordinator in Sulu who happened to bring some coffee grown and produced in Sulu. "It tasted good and I was so amazed that Sulu produces coffee. All I knew then about Sulu were the kidnappings and terrorism."

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Xilca developed Café de Sug Sulu coffee and saw it as a chance to initiate sustainable livelihood opportunities for GK Sulu community residents through fair trade with farmers' cooperatives. Aside from buying the produce from the cooperatives, she donates 20 percent of the gross sales of Café de Sug to support teachers in the GK Sulu Sibol pre-school.

"The teachers are volunteers who have been teaching 30 or more kids in every community. The more teachers we sponsor, the more young minds we educate and shape toward a path of peace and hope; rehabilitate from the trauma and bitterness of a war-torn society they were only born into by misfortune. While enjoying your cup of Café de Sug Sulu Coffee you also help brew peace in the South," Xilca says.

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On the package of Café de Sug Sulu coffee is the tagline: "Only for the brave." It is a most apt description for the stout heart that bravely ventured out of the confines of her world to give livelihood and a chance for a better life to people in the Enchanted Farm community.

Both Gourmet Keso and Café de Sug Sulu coffee are available at all Human Nature stores nationwide and at the GK Café at the Human Nature main store at 463 Commonwealth Ave., Q.C. For a complete list of Human Nature branches, log on to www.humanheartnature.com.
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")

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