If you visit a sagra or craft fair whilst in Abruzzo, you’ll bump into at least 2 cheery stalls selling the most subtly lovely handmade olive oil soaps, shampoos and beauty products. Each of their items use the region’s rich high meadow pasture and coastal flowers and herbs for their properties as well as their delicate perfume. Do try them they are excellent and worth popping in your suitcase to share with friends back home.
Making your own soap and beauty products is flourishing once more in Abruzzo as people move away from their commercial brightly coloured cousins wrapped in plastic and scented with a lab concocted oil. They are returning to the soaps their Nonnas made and they are the latest classes offered as an interesting alternative to the more mainstream cooking lesson if you are on holiday in Abruzzo.
The artist Antonella Martinelli offers traditional olive oil soap and felt soap classes, these are a traditional, long-lasting, and environmentally friendly take on modern scrubs using olive oil and milk soap bound in felt. Her classes are held in the gorgeous medieval town of Fontecchio AQ in her shop and the once communal lavatoi, the washing troughs that sit next to the beautifully sculpted fountain, particularly worth a visit in Autumn! Check her Fb page for these workshops to contact her for an individual lesson.
Fattoria Valle Magica is also now offering interesting natural beauty workshops which comprise of making beauty products like traditional scrubs, having a massage and a delicious vegetarian lunch, the next ‘Scrub Naturale’ is on Sunday 10th October. These are led by Ela an aromatherapist, who moved to Abruzzo with her Italian husband from her native Shiraz, which sits in southwestern Iran. She has found many similarities in the perfumed breezes between her new and former home, perhaps not the orange blossom but the prolific number of wild herbs that grow in the nearby mountains. She particularly loves the calendula that grows around Punta Aderci, their oil makes one of the best natural after-bite creams.
The History of Olive Oil Soap in Abruzzo
There are no scientific facts about when olive oil soap arrived in the region. Historically people had concentrated on the removal of dirt rather than personal hygiene. The Greeks bathed and cleaned their bodies with blocks of clay, sand, pumice, and ashes, then anointed themselves with oil which they scraped off, whilst the Romans applied perfumed oils after their preferred daily bath that was again scraped off before getting dressed.
It was the Crusades that brought the new Aleppo ‘soap’ to Europe from its home in Syria. The Arabs had experimented making soaps using olive oil, bay laurel oil, and caustic soda also known as lye in place of the traditional animal fat, water and caustic soda which had been used since the times of the Babylonians to remove dirt from cloth and peoples clothes. Their process like the later European ‘Marseille’ named soaps is based on heating the olive oil to accelerate the saponify process. However not all olive types from certain terrains will saponify when their oil is heated, this gave rise to ‘Castile’ soap which is produced when the oil is saponified at a cold temperature.
Traditionally in Abruzzo, a linen sack would be hung up to create the caustic soda. Ashes would be added mixed with water and lime and filtered, this detergent became known as ‘ran-no’. This would then be boiled with pig fat till it was a doughy mass, dried, and cut into cubes of soap that were used at the river, fountain or lavatoio, the wash house to wash clothes. It remains great for removing dirt, keeping hands smooth, but not something today that would appeal to many to use as a body soap today despite the addition of lavender and rosemary to make it smell better!
Click thru to the gallery post, Lavatoio Breaking the Backbone of the House to see some of Abruzzo’s most iconic wash houses and the women who went there.
We had a conversation on the LifeInAbruzzo Facebook group about how to use up-year-old olive oil as we approach the new harvest and making soap was a favourite way by one member, Janet to not let this precious oil go to waste. For those that want an emblem of Abruzzo, do consider a ‘Pecora’ sheep soap mould that you can buy on Ebay.
Antonella and Janet have kindly donated their hot and cold recipes for Olive Oil soaps for you to try at home, Ela has also donated a revitalising foot scrub recipe for you to try at home!
Antonella's Olive Oil and Milk Soap
- 1 Kilo Olive Oil
- 128 g Caustic Soda
- 300 g Milk
- At least 24 hours before making the soap, place the milk in the freezer to prevent the sugar contained in it from caramelising with the heat of the soda, and thus compromising the success of the soap.
- Put the "block" of frozen milk in a glass, steel or rigid plastic pot for food and add the caustic soda, in the meantime, in another pot, preferably steel, heat the oil until it reaches 45 °, when the soda solution has also reached the same heat, add it to the oil, mix with a steel or wooden spoon and continue with a hand blender to speed up the preparation.
- While it is being blended the mixture will change colour and consistency becoming more and more creamy, at this point the soap is ready, put it in the moulds, add a few drops of essential oil to perfume them and let it set for 24/48 hours, then remove it from the moulds and leave it to mature for 6/8 weeks in a dark and dry place and away from curious little hands and faces.
Janet's Pure Olive Oil Soap
- 400 g Olive Oil
- 77 g Distilled Water
- 51.5 g Caustic Soda
- 1 tsp Salt
- Mica pigment for colour
- Essential Oil
- Do the first process in the open, as it lets off fumes and you need to be careful (ideally wearing glasses and gloves) as it gets very hot, so you need a good plastic container and a strong wooden/plastic spoon (not to be used for anything else)!Add the caustic soda to the water and stir, and add the salt, this helps it to set. It will get very hot while the reaction works so leave outside (somewhere safe) while it cools down.
- When cool add the caustic soda mixture to the olive oil and whisk with a stick blender. It will thicken, but not too much. Add essential oils, and colour if you want. Mix thoroughly. I also add Vitamin E drops. Use a jug to help you pour into moulds. Leave for quite a few days before turning out, and leave for up to a month for the soap to harden, depending on the temperature and humidity.
Honey and Mint Natural Foot Scrub
- 2 tbsp Epsom Salt
- 2 tbsp Pink Salt
- 1 tbsp Raw Honey
- 1 tbsp Coconut Oil
- 1 tbsp Sweet Almond Oil
- 5 Drops Mint Essential Oil
- Mix ingredients together, leave to infuse for one day before adding to a footbath.