Making soap is powerful magic. Transformation of matter is a profound occupation. –Alicia Grosso
There’s a little house perched on a mountain on an island in the Caribbean, and that’s where I got the impulse to focus on the alchemy of soap. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The foundation for the idea was already laid, as it is for most of the ridiculous things that people attempt — I’d been growing herbs for a while, and tried a few salves and balms, but as it happens herbalists might not be the go-to guys for actually formulating a body product. That particular expertise lies with the handmade soapmakers and lotionmakers, as I discovered once I started searching the Web for some advice.
What I found inspired me to try my first soap. As I’m a pretty inveterate reader, I relied on an actual book — “Smart Soapmaking” by Anne Watson. I can recommend this no-nonsense, detailed and tightly-focused guide to anyone starting out. And the best part of her approach? You get to do this with your first batch:
That first shea-butter batch came out so beautifully from its milk-carton mold that I was well and truly hooked.
So once I got to the little house on the island, I started looking around. (“Looking around” seems to be a marker for the alchemy syndrome.) The heritage flower on St. Croix is a lovely trumpet-shaped yellow blossom called the “Ginger Thomas.” Dense stands of these flowers surround the little house, and they support entire colonies of bananaquits and Anguillan hummingbirds.
The fragrance of the blossom is delicate, and I decided I would try to preserve it and take it home through a process called “enfleurage.”
Enfleurage is a centuries-old technique that’s still used today for flowers with fragrances so sensitive that they are lost in the usual commercial high-pressure steam or chemical distillation processes. What it entails is the gentle submerging of flowers in a bed of solid oils (in my case, cocoa butter) over a period of days.
Each day, the flowers are sieved out of the oil and replaced with fresh blossoms. Gradually, the fragrance and color of the blossoms transfers to the oil; at this stage, it’s officially called a “pomade.” Additional steps using alcohol can further refine the pomade, but as I would use the infused oil itself in the soapmaking process, I packed up the oil and brought it home.
The batch was small, but simple and promising. I used olive oil, coconut oil, and the enfleuraged butter, and poured it into the “sample mold” I use for new experiments.
But here is where the mystery of alchemy comes in — once the soap was unmolded and cured, the color had faded, and some of the fragrance lost. This isn’t all that surprising; any soapmaker can tell you stories about fragrances run amuck (or vanishing completely) and colors morphing without warning. So, while I had a perfectly adequate soap, it just wasn’t . . . what I was looking for.
I also prefer a very conditioning, creamy soap, and this didn’t quite hit the mark in that respect either. Enter the “Rebatch.” There are several techniques to “rebatch” or remake soap; I chose the one where you shred the old soap, and then combine it with a batch of newly created soap. For the new recipe addition, I combined olive oil, coconut oil, castor oil, and a heavy dollop of shea butter for a very rich, mild, conditioning recipe.
During the research for the rebatch, I went over some of the photographs I’d taken on the island. Christiansted, one of the two major towns, slopes gently down to a glorious harbor in a warren of stone-laid streets, cloisterwalks, and sea-faded but vibrant pastel buildings.
The second picture had me rooting through my colorant options. I didn’t want a white soap (although those can be awesome as well); I wanted something that reflected the island, and the juxtaposition of the gentle reds and warm yellows was exactly what I was looking for. Moroccan Red Clay and an apricot FDC colorant promised to get close to what I had in mind. Further, the Ginger Thomas fragrance had become very subtle, so I needed to find a fragrance that would enhance and expand it. I found I had a fragrance oil that reminded me of the scent of the trade wind coming off the island when you are on the sea. The grassiness and floral note of the Ginger Thomas is carried by a clean, fresh burst and a hint of berries and fruit.
I mixed the colorants and fragrance into the rebatched soap, pot-swirled the colors, poured the whole shebang into a loaf mold, and crossed my fingers. (In addition to research, precision, and physical skill, modern alchemy always requires a certain amount of luck, hope, and resignation.)
This is how Christiansted looked at cutting:
And now, after curing for 5 weeks to harden and become even milder:
I was extremely pleased by the performance of Christiansted. The red clay gives the lather a pleasing “slip,” which might make it a good option for shaving, while the shea and cocoa butters provide a rich creamy character. The coconut and castor oils zing it up with some bubbliness and a solid cleaning profile. But best of all, it brings with it not only a memory of the Caribbean, but also the Ginger Thomas flowers of St. Croix.