Sunshine and soap

Sunshine is such a precious gift and never more so than at this time of year. We often celebrate with a special meal on the day of the winter solstice, or else ‘midwinter’ three days later, the point at which it is possible to tell that the sun has begun its journey north once more; as that coincided with Christmas Eve this year, we decided to have our feast on Nochebuena in the local way. For me, it is a deeply meaningful celebration, an acknowledgement of the way in which sunlight is essential to all life and the key to our very being. The worst of winter is ahead but after that, spring will come once more.

Although the shorter days see the natural world slowing down here after summer’s frantic activity, things are far from dormant. The garden still jingles with birdlife: blackbirds and blackcaps already staking their claim to the kiwis; robins bobbing across the mulched bare earth in search of skinny pink worms; chaffinches and great tits call in simple cadences whilst long-tailed tits chatter sociably through their acrobatics. I love the quiet charm of tiny green warblers, the cheekiness of wrens, the bravado of goldfinches and bluster of bullfinches who, even though they are stealing buds from the peach trees, are forgiven purely for their vibrant beauty. Above us, ravens croak and cough in high places, raptors soar and swoop on spiral trajectories and the silent, spectral heron stalks the river bank below. There is a pageant of colour and show in the floral world, too. No need for poinsettias here.

Lizards are basking in sunny spots, moles are making merry in the loamy earth and where ditches hold water they are gelled with frogspawn. We were woken by the persistent barking of a huge dog fox in the meadow behind the house and watched him through an open window, silvered in moonlight, as his confident call reverberated around the valley. Pure magic. As if the sun itself is honouring the season, we have been treated to a week of spectacular sunsets; I have watched mesmerised as clouds have mingled and morphed and colours bled and changed and deepened in a transient canvas of sheer artistry. No need for tinsel and fairy lights, either.

With Christmas Day free from distraction, we took a flask of coffee and headed out to walk along a path which circles the mountain opposite. It is a walk I love, following the curving contours of the mountain and enjoying stunning views of the sunlit valley below and distant peaks fading into hazy blues.

What sheer delight to feel the warmth of that sun! We walked long stretches without speaking, not because we had nothing to say to one another but simply because the silence was so profound; no sound of man or machine, not so much as a cat’s paw of wind in the trees . . . so perfectly quiet we could hear the flutter of butterflies passing on their drowsy wings. The air was suffused with the aromatic spicy scents of sun-warmed pine and eucalyptus; I often wonder if our distinct lack of colds and winter bugs has anything to do with this daily dose of nature’s own aromatherapy?

At one point along the ridge it is possible to look across and see our little white house nestled in the meadows below sweeps of forest. What always strikes me about this view is just how high the mountain stretches away from us and how wild and untamed the countryside becomes just minutes from our door. We are so blessed to live in such a place.

This warm, dry, settled weather seemed just perfect for taking my first tentative steps into the world of soap making. It’s something I’ve often thought of doing but have backed away from because I know that lye is nasty stuff. That said, we no longer have small children or pets to worry about and I am a grown up after all, so the time had come to give it a go. Projects like this always excite me; like dyeing wool, making soap is a fascinating mix of science and art and leaves me pondering its intriguing history. How did someone discover that running rainwater through wood ash and mixing the resulting lye with fat could make something so useful? My intention was to use ingredients we had to hand to make a very basic ‘kitchen cupboard’ soap, one that would give me an idea of how the process works without involving any fancy stuff; my thinking was that if it wasn’t very good, I could at least use it for laundry. To that end, I chose to use olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil and sweet almond oil with lemon essential oil for a subtle fragrance and antibacterial qualities; no colourants whatsoever.

Soap making requires distilled water. Our water comes into the house directly from a mountain spring so it is free of the chemicals found in mains water, very soft and mineral-rich . . . and that is a problem. Minerals in the water can affect how the lye behaves and can also cause ‘dreaded orange spots’ to appear as the soap cures. As the idea of buying plastic bottles of distilled water somehow seemed to go against the whole ethos of my project, I decided to make my own. I floated a heatproof glass bowl in a stockpot of water, brought it to the boil, inverted the lid and piled it with ice. Within half an hour, my bowl was full of distilled water . . . and as we have a plentiful supply of free water and free heat when The Beast is lit, this is a very sustainable method – and adds to the fun, too!

Having gathered everything I needed, I decided to set up my chemistry lab outside; I always prefer to do things outdoors when I can anyway and it made sense not to be creating unpleasant fumes in the house if it wasn’t necessary. Working in long sleeves, gloves, goggles and mask isn’t the most comfortable of situations but from my experiences in activities like dyeing and beekeeping I recognise the good sense in a disciplined approach to safety – better to feel slightly encumbered than suffer a chemical burn or lose an eye.

Unfortunately, at this point my trusty Technical Support Manager discovered that the adaptor plug I needed for our long extension had blown a fuse and we had no replacement to hand; this meant I couldn’t use the hand blender outside so a change of plan was needed – cue carting most of that stuff back up fourteen steps to the kitchen! I could still mix the lye and water outside, however, and this I did; I didn’t see any fumes given off but the rapid appearance of condensation on the bowl certainly suggested an energetic exothermic reaction was well under way. While the lye cooled, I mixed the oils together and heated them gently to melt the coconut oil.

Then for the exciting bit, starting the saponification process. I slowly stirred the lye into the oils then got busy with the hand blender. At first, the mixture looked like a thin pancake batter but within moments had thickened to a light ‘trace’ – leaving a faint trail like a whisked sponge mixture.

This indicated that the water and oils had emulsified: the point of no return. I added the essential oil and blended a little bit more until the batter was thick and creamy, then poured it into silicone moulds; covered and left in the warmth of the kitchen, I needed to leave them for them for at least 24 hours to set . . . oh, the anticipation!

The moment of truth. I’m not sure whether I was nervous, excited or both but the soaps felt firm enough, so I took a deep breath and carefully turned them out of their moulds.

Amazing! I mean, obviously I knew I was trying to make soap and having read a couple of books and watched zillions of video clips, I was hopeful it would work . . . but isn’t it a lovely thing to try something so new and different, to watch a fascinating process unfold right in front of your eyes? The soaps looked and smelt like creamy lemon panna cotta, almost good enough to eat, and I was desperate to dive in and have a good wash! We could use them now but they are better if cured and will last longer in the shower that way. I’ve put them on an airy shelf in the airing cupboard (yes, we have one in the bathroom at last . . . also, we have a bathroom :-)) where they can stay for the next four to six weeks. I’m turning them daily and watching for changes in their texture and appearance; if the dreaded orange spots appear, we can still use them but I might have to rethink my distilled water plan for future projects. So far, so good.

Encouraged by my initial success, I’m now eagerly awaiting a parcel of new and more exciting ingredients so I can have a go at making solid shampoo bars. In the meantime, I’m wandering around the garden, lanes and woodland wondering what natural resources I might be able to use in creating my own toiletries.

What a wonderful excuse for being outside, filling my lungs with fresh mountain air, turning my face to the sun, drinking in the views and feeling such overwhelming joy at being alive. January might be looming, but my heart and soul are singing with soap and sunshine. Happy New Year, one and all!:-)