Soap and the Caribbean

It’s been a busy couple days for the Alchemist.  If you’ll recall, the first attempt at a genip syrup off an Ancient Document (a Virgin Islands newspaper from 1973) did not have a good result.  From perfectly good genips I ended up with a burned, wretched mess that went directly into the garbage.  The second attempt, however, was focused entirely on getting juice, and to do that I relied on my technique for persuading it out of prickly pears.  Five bunches and a dollop of water over a very low simmer for hours seemed to do the trick.

Genip juice Now that’s more like it.

I ended up with about four cups of the strained juice, which was a lot more than I expected.  But this was a good thing, because I intended to do two things with it — use some of the juice as the liquid to dissolve the lye in my first island-made soap, and the rest to make a syrup in the way that I knew how.

The only problem I had is that my lye hadn’t arrived.  Without lye there is no handmade cold-process soap, so day after day went by with my anxious checking of the USPS tracking site, only to find that my sodium hydroxide languished in Sebring, Florida, for days (is there good sightseeing there, or what?) and then took a few day trips out of Catano, Puerto Rico. I just hope it found a good hotel.

I’ll note this was no fault of the supplier — Essential Depot, which unlike most soapmaking suppliers can ship everywhere.  As far as I can tell, they’ve got the docs to ship to the moon (sodium hydroxide requires special permissions and papers to ship across the street, apparently).  Their customer service is first rate.  They picked up a problem in my shipping address instantly, fixed it on the phone, and my package was on its way the same day.  I’d recommend them to anyone trying this out.

On Tuesday night, literally minutes after I’d left the post office in yet another fruitless quest, I learn from the USPS tracking website that the package had dropped.  Of course it was too late to pick it up then — the office closed literally seconds after I read the email (/banghead) — so it was all up to Wednesday.  I set up the mise as well as I could, considering that I was jerry-rigging more than a bit of the usual setup.  But I’d found some locally-made, beautifully clear coconut oil sold by our local Rastafarians; I had genip juice; I had some light-colored olive oil, and that was basically my formula.  70% olive, 30% coconut, a 34% lye concentration and a whole lot of prayer for my first island soap.

I was stuck here without essential oils, fragrance oils, or any of my usual colorants, so I tried a couple things.  First was the attempted infusion of fresh red hibiscus flowers into some coconut oil.  Guess what? Hibiscus flowers, while water soluble into a fantastic tea,

What do you want me to do again?

will not give it up in oil.  They sit there, get soggy, and look more and more resentful. Same deal with the Jamaican sorrel and ginger tea.  So I gave up the oil infusion idea, measured off the correct amount of genip juice for the soap formula, and popped a couple of the teabags into it.  In a few minutes II had a gloriously deep red color.



Now I know that soap colorants, especially herbal ones, can change, morph, or even disappear without as much as a text message (FU HAHA SOAP NOOB), so I wasn’t too overjoyed. But I was hopeful.


When the lye arrived and I ripped home with it, I started the process right away. I was using a Pringles can as a stunt mold (because it was easiest, really) and had it propped up inside a hideous vase left behind by the previous owners.  I prepped the lye outside on the concrete driveway, because I had no clue as to what would happen and decided I’d rather not burn a hole through either myself or my kitchen floor if something went horrifically awry.  When the lye hit the sorrel-infused genip juice**, it turned a violent neon green, the juice itself started swirling bright orange, and then it rippled back through a dark red as the lye dissolved.  After the shock of this hallucinogenic color experience had dissipated I raced back inside, strained it into the prepared oils, and started into it with the stick blender that had taken me two days to find on island.

It took forever to “trace” (emulsify and thicken up during the saponification process enough to mold), and by the time it did, it was the most hideous color I’d ever seen — a horrific greenish brown that looked like it had been scraped from the bottom of an abandoned boat and then left in an abandoned basement inside a diseased bucket, and that had me thisclose to tossing it all into the garbage.  But I kept the faith and molded it.  And this morning, I tossed the can into the freezer for a half hour or so and then unmolded and cut it. The color had deepened and evened, and it’s possible that it might redden over time — herbal colorants are tricky creatures and while a cold-processed soap cures, the colors can change.  What you can see, here, is how the soap is “sweating.”  While soaps taken out of the freezer frequently do this, this particular soap was suffering just as much as we were in the heat.

Ahh, outside breezes.



So at first I took it outside where there was a light wind that I thought might help dry it quickly.   And then I started worrying about sudden downpours, birds, and bugs, and concluded that technology was obviously the answer. The next step is to leave some here with our friends, to see how it cures in the Caribbean, and to take some home with us to keep an eye on it there.  But it is my first real island soap, made with island ingredients in real island heat, humidity and wind.  My curiosity on how this simple formula will come out is overwhelming.  While it isn’t the sexiest-looking soap out there, it’s got the advantage of being The First.