Aside from the fresh air, cool temperature, and the great mountain scenery, local and foreign tourists alike seem to take a trip up to Baguio City for two things: strawberry jam and ube (purple yam) jam.
The two pasalubong (travel souvenirs) staples of the City of Pines have earned a following from all over the Philippines, thanks to the Good Shepherd sisters who whipped up their timeless recipes to be able to feed the needy.
Out of necessity
The Good Shepherd convent has always adopted children under its wing, with a mission that dates back to 1952, when they were asked by then Bishop William Brasseur to establish a special apostolate that can minister to the youth from the Cordillera provinces of Apayao, Abra, Mountain Province, Kalinga, Ifugao, and Benguet.
However, the Good Shepherd sisters had difficulty sourcing food which they can feed the young orphans under their care, and this initially forced them to beg for unsold and rotten vegetables which they can cook just so they can feed the children. Within the year, the nuns have had enough—they cannot go on living like that, begging for food and relying on the goodness of others, and decided to put up a business that can support both the needs of the nunnery and of the orphans under its care.
Thus, the Mountain Maid brand was born, which started out as a rolling store selling strawberry jam, and initially set up at Mines View Park to attract local and foreign tourists alike.
“The idea was a divine inspiration,” said Sister Mary Guadalupe Bautista of the Good Shepherd convent. “The business was put up to help the young people of Cordillera have fullness of life and live in dignity,” she added.
Sister Bautista noted that Mountain Maid has been a “social enterprise” even before the term seeped into mainstream consciousness—their Mountain Maid Training Center (MMTC) has been operating as a social enterprise for the past 64 years.
Strawberry jam, anyone?
Mother Mary John of the Cross Kroner, who passed away in 1960, came up with the recipe for the Good Shepherd sisters’ signature strawberry jam. As a young girl who grew up in strawberry farms in the US, Mother Kroner has mastered different recipes for sweet jam and shared them to the Good Shepherd sisters, passing on the recipe to Sister Mary Carmen Medalla.
Why strawberry jam? Aside from strawberries being abundant in Baguio City every time it is in season, the sisters noticed that while many tourists bought fresh strawberries, they rarely took them all home due to its short shelf life. Their solution was introducing bottled strawberry jam into the market.
Since then, the Good Shepherd sisters came up with products to cope with the changing times. Today, there are more than 90 products produced under the Mountain Maid label, with ube jam as its best seller, followed by the peanut brittle.
“We’re fortunate that there is an abundance of raw materials here in the Cordillera,” said Sister Bautista. “We’ve also become more innovative; we keep abreast with and try to adapt to new food manufacturing trends,” she added.
The ube jam, for example, was introduced so that Mountain Maid can offer a product which will be available all year round, as strawberry is a seasonal fruit, while the sugar crisis of the 80s paved the way for the brand’s line of chutneys.
Helping Cordillera youth
Aside from taking orphans under their wing, the Good Shepherd sisters, through the MMTC, helps Cordillera youth live with dignity by providing them education and employment. The MMTC has a system wherein students can earn their way through college by working at the training center.
“The brand’s success has produced a student worker program, which now has over 370 college students,” Sister Bautista said. Last year, the MMTC had 82 graduates from its student worker program. As the sisters invested in more technology, it also meant that they needed more student workers.
“But we sell only what we can produce,” noted Sister Bautista. “We’re not slaves to market forces because that’s not our purpose,” she added.
Surviving through the years
Like most businesses, the convent and its social enterprise has had its fair share of trials.
In 1990, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Baguio City. “Everything was destroyed,” recalled Sister Bautista, as the Good Shepherd sisters lost their training center building and all of the equipment they invested in. “But we resumed operations immediately, and we were able to rebuild our 3-storey building in six years without taking out any loans or accepting donations—the money we used to rebuild just came from the sales of our products,” she explained.
The Meningococcemia outbreak, which hit Baguio City during the Christmas season of 2004, also affected the business. “It led to a drop in the sales of our products due to the decrease in the number of tourists,” Sister Bautista recalled.
Climate change also affects their business. “We need new seed varieties for strawberries,” Sister Bautista added, as she fears that climate change might wipe out its supply.
And as with any famous brand, Mountain Maid has its share of copycats and smugglers up to this day. “We only have one store, but we have a lot of unauthorized distributors,” said Sister Bautista, adding that most customers cannot even tell the difference. “But we still have a lot more customers who wait in line for hours in front of our store because they want the real thing,” she added.