I always knew that the limestone mountains and cliffs in Northern Palawan were the home to swiftlets (collocalia whiteheadi) or birds that made their nests that are unfortunately (for the birds), a delicacy for mainly Chinese diners. On a trip to El Nido two years ago, I was told that the name El Nido meant Birdâ€™s Nestâ€¦ At any rate, I was under the mistaken impression until recently that you had to scale the razor sharp cliffs to find little crevices where the birds would nestâ€¦it turns out the nests are mostly in bigger, darker, slippery caves instead, not on the cliff faces. This post is something the Food Gods absolutely divined, for how on earth could I have chanced upon a native who would not only give me a crash course in birdâ€™s nest, but also happen to have a few on hand for me to photograph?! While on the fantastic small strip of sand at Banol Beach, and burning up in the hot sun, an older lady approached to collect the â€œfeeâ€ for using the beachâ€¦after we paid, she sat down in the hut to avoid the sun we started to chit-chatâ€¦
Turns out she is a Tagbanuan, and has lived on the island since birth as have her forefathers and ancestorsâ€¦ She explained that there used to be so much more birdâ€™s nests in the mountains but that the supply had rapidly declined. When pressed for her view of the situation, Manang Herminia Aguilar believed the culprit is cyanide fishing. She felt that the birds, called Balinsasayaw locally, which she said â€œateâ€ the bubbles on the surface of the sea, which were contaminated with traces of cyanide (which is used on fish and which kill off coral) and the result was the poisoning of the birds. Some research suggests two views of the material that makes the birdâ€™s nests. One view is that the birds eat seaweed such as agar-agar and regurgitate this when they get back to their nests as they build them. Another view is that they simply use their saliva. At any rate, the â€œprizedâ€ delicacy is reputed to be good for oneâ€™s blood circulation or other medical rationale, so it is highly sought after. Of course my suggestion that natives simply stripping the caves of all nests might lead to a lack of bedding for new born chicks wasnâ€™t considered a reasonable explanation. It seems they are supposed to limit their collection of nests to only January to April, though everyone says that rule is flauntedâ€¦
After several minutes of discussion, I asked her if I could find some birdâ€™s nests to photograph for this blog and lo and behold, she whips out these two small bundles from her cloth bag. Carefully wrapped in a soft cloth, she gently took them out to show me. She explained that many people had died over the years trying to harvest these nests as the conditions in the caves are treacherous. She pointed out that she had two bundles classified by quality. The first bundle of noticeably whiter nests was Class A and was sold to traders from Manila for a whopping, hold your seats, PHP200,000 a KILO!!! Omigod is all I could think. This little bundle was about 20 grams or PHP4,000 pesos worth! The second bundle was Class C because of its color and the foreign matter embedded in the nests, this would retail for a much less shocking PHP120,000 a kilo and her bundle here of roughly 25 grams would garner PHP3,000 from the traders. So, in the photos here are roughly PHP7,000 pesos worth of dried saliva; now if only dried buggers were so highly valued as a flavoring agent for some special dish…ugh, that was a gross thought Marketman!
Sensitive to light, Manang Herminia did not want these freshly harvested nests to be exposed to light as they would discolor and as soon as I clicked my photos, she wrapped them back up again. And for those of you impressed by numbers, my rapid calculations place these nests among the MOST EXPENSIVE INGREDIENTS on the planet, period! The finest beluga caviar at its source in Kazakhstan might run you just USD 50 cents a gram (USD500 a kilo at the source, as much as USD5,000 by the time it reaches the West), while the best saffron, often touted as the most expensive spice on the planet, might run about USD1 per gram at the source in Iran or elsewhere, and the finest truffles may range from USD2-4 per gram at their source in Italy or France. These nests, of top quality will already command USD4-5 per gram right at the foot of the mountains from which they were collectedâ€¦shocking! However, I must end this post with a comment that I will never ever again eat birdâ€™s nest soup. The swiftlets are endangered, and the thought of robbing them of their cozy nests is not something I can stomach. The same feeling goes for Sharkâ€™s fin soup, as I have seen bulk processors of this delicacy in Indonesia and that experience also meant I cannot, in all conscience, eat a bowl of gelatinous, stringy sharkâ€™s fin. And since the sturgeon that yields beluga caviar is also now on the endangered species list, I will refrain from consuming any of that as well (not that I get a chance to do that too often at all). While I learned a lot from Manang Herminia, I learned more the importance of preserving the dwindling swiftletsâ€¦