No one can do strawberry jam and angel cookies better than the Good Shepherd Sisters in Baguio City.
Their products are so good that many have tried to copy their recipes and labels, but failed to get that distinct delicious "Mountain Maid" taste that both Baguio locals and visitors enjoy.
What's their secret? Well, the Good Shepherd nuns just leave that up to God.
"I think our secret is really when we are doing the jams and the brittles and the cookies, we also pray the rosary together with our staff and students. While doing this, we also pray for our customers who will buy and consume our products, so I think that is the best secret," said Sister Teresa Danganan in an interview on ABS-CBN's "Shoptalk."
Danganan was a former manager of the Mountain Maid Training Center and Development Inc. (MMTC), a group formed by the nuns to provide livelihood to poor female students, especially from far-flung places in the Cordilleras like Kalinga and Bontoc. She said that the thriving jam and cookie business has made their charity activities--providing lodging and education for 250 to 300 girls a year-- sustainable.
"Even [in] lean months, I never experienced having a zero balance in our sales because every time we have no customers, especially during the Meninggococcemia [scare in Baguio City], some sisters went to Quiapo to pray. When we don't have customers, we always pray to St. Joseph to bring us customers," Danganan said.
It is hard to believe that their successful business today only started with a small clientele of friends and neighbors in 1953. The Religious of the Good Shepherd Sisters were so poor at the time that they had to ask their customers to return the jam bottles so that the nuns could re-use and peddle them again.
The Good Shepherd nuns decided to sell strawberry jam in an attempt to augment the meager resources of their school for young children and girls.
Danganan said the nuns in the 1950s had 150 children to feed and had depended on an erratic supply of meat and unsold vegetables from the Baguio market, as well as foreign and local donations.
"They said 'we need more stable income to augment the needs of the children'," she said.
Capturing the taste buds of many a customer through the years, the jam recipe was passed on from Mother Mary John of the Cross Kroner, the Provincial Superior at the time, to Sister Mary Carmel Medalla, who continued the arduous process of hauling and peeling individual strawberries to make the thick, syrupy jam.
Later, Sister Fidelis Atienza introduced the ube jam, now one of the convent's best sellers, upon the request of customers who could not find a delicious kind in the market. The ube jam making process was reportedly perfected by Sister Assumption Ocampo, who is still alive today at the age of 102.
Many Baguio residents and visitors today still crave for the taste of creamy Mountain Maid ube jam served freshly cooked and piping hot. This product reportedly addressed the needs of the sisters who were looking for a resource that was less seasonal, like strawberries, and could be home grown.
During the sugar crisis, Sister Assumption even invented less sugar-rich spreads like sayote, pickles, and chutneys, effectively expanding the Mountain Maid brand line. Today, the MMTC boasts of various products like angel cookies, butter cookies, peanut brittles, lengua de gato, and various preserves.
The sisters have also lately experimented with machines, upon the suggestion of Sister Guada, the MMTC's product developer. However, Danganan said the sisters have still maintained their personal touch, opting to pack their products by hand (with plastic gloves, of course).
From peak seasons to non-peak seasons, customers from all over the Philippines (and a nearby tourist spot, Mines View Park) have made the trek up Gibraltar Road to the Good Shepherd convent in Mines View Barangay in order to line up at their little store and buy sweet treats. Their products vary in size, from small to large, and are priced from P100 to more than P300.
"It's expensive, but the profit goes to the students. And it's good, it [consumption] usually lasts for three weeks," she said. However, some customers tend to finish the yummy confections all in one go.
"I remember when I was there, there was one girl, she was able to finish one bottle [of ube jam] in one sitting. Then her mother said, 'Where is our ube? Why is it gone?'," she shared, laughing.
As a testament to their excellent recipes, Danganan said many people (including former Good Shepherd students) have tried to copy their products, using labels and bottles very similar to their brand, in an attempt to fool unassuming customers. Although they try to copy the packaging, they fail to copy the taste, a fact that has puzzled even the Good Shepherd Sisters.
"Our students, when they go out, they try [to copy what they learned at MMTC] and they are also being pirated by religious congregations. But they said they do not get the secret, because there really is no secret," Danganan said.
As the Good Shepherd Sisters, staff, and students continue to churn out these heavenly treats and sprinkle them with a prayer or two, many skeptics are still left wondering why their products are so delicious. Heaven-sent or no, there's one thing Sister Teresa Danganan and the Good Shepherd nuns can be sure of: God has definitely been good.