One of the most charming bread traditions introduced by the Spaniards to the Filipinos occurs every September 10th in parishes honoring San Nicholas de Tolentino.
Dr. Alejandro Roces describes Saint Nicholas de Tolentino as the Super Saint of the Augustinian order. Aside from being the traditional patron of forty-six Philippine towns (Augustine is tutelary of only forty-four), he became famous for the legend of Guadalupe’s San Nicholasi; the “miraculous” appearance of the shrikes or locally known as the tarat during his feast day; and the sacramental bread (or more of a biscuit) known as the Pan de San Nicholas.
Born in 1246, San Nicholas de Tolentino was an Italian hermit of the Augustinian order who made his profession before turning 19 years old. He is usually depicted dressed in black robe, with a star shining above him or resting on his chest. In his hand is a lily or lily-garlanded crucifix that symbolizes his youthful virginity. At times he carries a money bag or bread bun symbolic of his continuous charity with the poor until his death in 1306. In the Philippines, where he is considered as the baker’s patron, a tarat bird which migrates to the islands in September is added to his iconography.
The distinguishing feature of the San Nicholas feast was the blessing and distribution of bread, the bread which was supposed to be as miraculous as the saint’s charities. According to the story, when San Nicholas was ill, he envisioned that the Virgin had advised him to eat a small piece of bread dipped in water; following Blessed Virgin’s advice, San Nicholas recovered. Thereon, he started distributing blessed bread to the sick. After his demise, his followers continued the practice of blessing and portioning bread during his feast day.
According to Felice Prudente-Sta. Maria, Pan de San Nicholas is not bread but a biscuit. Wheat or arrow-root flour, a hint of sugar and water are all it takes to make this holy cookie. Some add eggs and milk that bread vendors of that time cried out “Pan de San Nicholas, me gatas, me itlog!” Its flavor and texture is similar to the uraro as we know it today. What makes the Pan de San Nicholas different from the uraro though is the embossed image of San Nicholas on the biscuit.
Sta. Maria explains that it was only on the feast day of San Nicholas were made available. Therefore, the production of the Pan de Nicholas ration must last for one whole year till the next feast.
The biscuits were made after flattening dough with a wooden rolling pin. Hands-size portions are slapped unto baking cards finely carved with recessed likeness of the saint. Then the dough is extracted with a knife or metal cutter. It takes hours to make a batch in old-fashioned rice-husk or wood fuelled furnace.
According to Dr. Roces, Pan de San Nicholas is to be stored and in the event of illness, eaten with accompanying prayer: “Grant we beseech thee, Almighty God, that thy Church, which is made illustrious by the glory of the marvels and miracles of blessed Nicholas, thy confessor, may by his merits and intercession enjoy perpetual peace and unity, through Christ, our Lord, Amen.”
The curative effect when eating the Pan de San Nicholas may have had more than a placebo effect. Penicillin, the first and the most valuable antibiotic, is most commonly found on bread mold. Dr. Roces explains that the reported sanative effect of Pan de San Nicholas is due to either the subjective impression of patients, primitive penicillin at work.
Moreover, when the blessed biscuit is not eaten for illness, it is crumbled and spread to the fields during planting with the hope for a bountiful harvest.
Second part of a series on Filipino bread traditions.
Guadalupe’s San Nicholasi by Dr. Alejandro Roces
Breads, beguiled and blessed by Felice Prudente-Sta. Maria
Almanac for Manileños by Nick Joaquin