Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Sweet Treats and Chocolate Hills

By Beth Green

Quick. Name me an Asian chocolatier.

Can you do it?

Chocolate is a ubiquitous sweet worldwide, as much in the Eastern Hemisphere as in the Western. But here it’s an imported sin, a luxurious nibble that has some aura of otherness about it.

Except, of course, in the Philippines. The Spanish, those plant-introducing conquistadores, brought cocoa to the Philippines in the 1600s, and cocoa farming has been a commercial concern here since the 1950s. Although the impact of Philippine cocoa is negligible on the world market—most cocoa production seems to be in Cote d’Ivoire, according to Wikipedia—the domestic market here is chock-full of great chocolate. I don’t mean candy bars either—foodstuffs made with actual cacao, like cakes and shakes, are just plain awesome in the Philippines.

However, if you Google “chocolate” and “Philippines” together, one of the first entries you’ll find isn’t for a confectioner’s. Or a baker’s. Or even for a farmer. It’s for the Chocolate Hills, a curious land formation that is unique to Bohol, an island province.

The Chocolate Hills are conical mounds, some 100 feet high or more, that rise up steeply, giving way to rounded tops, and are covered by grasses. Seeing one of these hills might remind you of a backyard anthill a thousand times high. Except, you’re multiplying that thousand-times-magnified anthill by one thousand hills, creating a vast, strange landscape that’s somewhere between bumpy and beautiful. There are, according to a blog on the Bohol provincial government’s website, about 1,200 of these hills, a number that’s hard to comprehend when you climb up one and look out to the horizon filled with the same round hills.

Legend has it that giants made this crazy, carbuncular landscape. Either fighting giants or lovesick giants, too preoccupied by their over-sized emotions to have a care about the breasts of earth they pushed up. Science gives us an interesting answer too: tectonic forces pushed the limestone seabed above water, and then rain and wind wore them down to Hershey’s Kisses of karst.
In the wet season, they'd be better named the "Mint Hills."

But how did they get the name “Chocolate Hills?” Because you grow chocolate there? Because they’re shaped like chocolate drops? Because an old place name happens to sound like the English word chocolate? Because when you go to the visitor’s center they give you free chocolate? These were all my guesses when we traveled to see them on my first visit to the Philippines, in 2011. But I was being too literal, and my guesses, even that tempting last one, were all wrong.

The Chocolate Hills are named after the hue of the grass that grows on the limestone slopes; when it dries up once a year, it turns the thousand smooth hills a chocolatey color—a treat, but only for the eyes.  


  1. Beth,

    There are chocolatiers in Central Asia! Want me to start naming them?


  2. There are chocolatiers in Iran, too, though I can't name any specific names off the top of my head. The Chocolate Hills are lovely, though, even in their non-chocolately season.