Saturday, December 06, 2008

I have been making soap, with the help of my friend Annette, who has been making her own for more than thirty years.

My first batch, made with Annette there on the spot to give me instructions

It is an incredibly simple process, with only three ingredients - far/oil, lye, and water. You can add all sorts of things, of course, to produce certain effects, such as hardening, colouring, adding texture and perfumes.

But the basic recipe does the job perfectly well.

And in current economic times. being able to save a little money to provide for the family and produce some little hand made gifts for friends gives one the most enormous pleasure!

Earlier this year, Annette made me a beautiful batch using pure olive oil. This is known as Castile soap.

This is the "Castile" (pure olive oil) soap that Annette made for me. The name of Grace Proud is one Annette uses when selling her soap.

Annette often makes her soap from the cast-off oil from the Takeaway shops and Restaurants. She clarifies this, and makes perfectly good soap for only a few cents a cake, unless she adds other ingredients. Her last batch she added kelp - it really smells of the sea! There is, of course, time involved, with initial stirring, and then waiting for it to cure.

You also need to take into account the fact that, although the process is basic and simple, the results can sometimes be a little unpredictable. Who knows why? The weather? the humidity? The quality of the oil? But there are no failures, because the soap can be "re-batched" and you get a second chance.

For my first efforts I used Copha (based on coconut oil) and Olive oil - and I was really pleased with the results. My second attempts used the same ingredients, but with more Copha and less oil. The results were not quite so good, but I went to the Internet, and found it was probably the rose-scented oil I decided to add that made it go a bit grainy.

Anyway, all you need are two buckets. Into one goes your warmed oil/fat, melted if necessary. Into the other goes your water, to which you add your lye (caustic soda) which makes the water go hot.

When both buckets have cooled to roughly the same temperature, you start stirring, and you could be stirring for a while, unless you use an electric "wand", like a Bamix. Once your mixture thickens, you pour it into moulds. The modern flexible silicone muffin moulds are perfect. Wrap it in a blanket for a couple of days or more, turn it out, and let it cure for a week or two. If it is still a bit soft, put it in the frig.

My second attempt, done without Annette's help. I could not resist trying a little powdered colouring

So what does this have to do with catching sharks? Well, my friend Paulette (90 years young) has been telling me how they made soap when she was growing up in a remote part of Pentecost Island in Vanuatu.

The fat for their soap came from shark's liver. But first you needed to catch a shark, the bigger the better.

At night, they would tie a long thick rope to a coconut tree near the beach. Close to the water's edge, a slightly narrower rope would be joined on. At intervals along the rope, it would be looped with lengths of string. Right at the end they would have a big hand-forged hook, to which a tempting shoulder of pork would be attached.

Now if a shark came along and took the pork, the hook would attach to its mouth and he would try to swim away. As he swam, one of the string loops would break, and the jerk would make the hook sink deeper. As he swam again, the same would happen, and before long, the hook was well and truly embedded.

In the morning, Paulette's step-father would come down to the beach to see if a shark was on the line. It would be extremely tired by this time. If they had been successful, they would light a fire, to send a smoke signal to the native Vanuatuans who lived around the bay. The men would come and assist to pull in the shark - it was not unusual to catch one measuring four metres or more. The shark would then be killed, and the liver extracted.

The liver, quite a large piece of "meat", was boiled up in a big 44 gallon drum to extract the oil. The liver was then disposed of, because it was highly toxic, and even a dog eating a small piece would die a slow and painful death. The rest of the shark was also disposed of - they had no use for any other part, except for some of the skin, that was used for sandpaper!

The fat that had been extracted was then clarified. They had discovered that seawater was best for this. One day, one of the women had been washing the clothes in the river, near where it ran into the sea. A large wave had rolled in and swamped the clothes. She discovered that not only did the soap lather better, but washed out cleaner. So they tried using the salt water for clarifying the oil. Now I told Annette about this, and she was amazed. She said that a website she had gone to had suggested adding salt when clarifying, and she didn't believe it would work.

Anyway, back to Vanuatu. The fat in the drum would rise to the top as it cooled, and the water below was released through a bung. The caustic soda solution was added, the mixture stirred, and then it was poured into moulds that been made by hand from cut-up kerosene tins. This soap was not only used at home, but provided a little cash for the family when it was sold to tourists.

Now in the old days, the ashes from the fire were used to make the lye or caustic soda. I do not know how this was done. I may look it up, but I do not intend to try it!


Anonymous said...

I always wanted to try to make some soap but where I live I could never find lye. Thanks for sharing I enjoyed learning about your experience.

Carol said...

You make it sound so easy that I'm tempted to try. If only the days were twice as long.

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