Sunday, November 05, 2017

Elecampane Soap Bar

Elecampane Meadow
Elecampane meadow at sunset. This is where me and my mom harvested younger leaves and flowering tops of this Astaraceae plant for my soap making and oil infusions.
Elecampane (Innula viscosa/Dittrichia viscosa (L.) W. Greuter/ Cupularia viscosa (L.) Gren. & Godr.) is a plant with many herbal medicine attributions and healing powers, at least forty different ailments according to the folk medicine of Palestine, chief among them hypertension, relief of swollen feet and legs (common during pregnancy), bruises, diabetes, herpes and rheumatism, infertility and for treating dry skin and for its anti-aging properties.

Modern medicinal uses include: treating intestinal worms, cracked skin, athlete's foot, blood coagulation, topical disinfectant for wounds, and more.

Additional uses: The woody twigs and branches from this perennial bush can be used for bonfires, primarily for baking flatbread. Another useful application is in deterring insects. In Spain entire branches are hang to keep flies at bay. I will have to try this because they tend to get out of control at this time of the year. Extracts of the plant are also used to treat various plant diseases (especially of bacterial or fungal origin), and also the plant itself has a tendency to stop the growth of other weeds around it. Last but not least: Elecampane is what is considered a "pioneer plant": It is the first one to show up in new habitats (for example: areas that recently were devastated by invasive human behaviour such as bulldozers, etc.). It was originally a marsh plant, and likes muddy areas, which is why it is now so commonly found on the sides of the road (where the water tends to build up), the areas around creeks or rivers, and in areas that got flooded in the winter rains.

The young leaves are pickled in vinegar and can be eaten. I'm still trying to find out what this strange flavour and brought texture could go with.

Elecampane
Oil infusion of elecampane flowering tops and fresh leaves. The smell was strong, resinous and true to the plant. It has a bit of a funk to it, very much like marijuana, but different.
Elecampane (Inula helenium) Soapmaking Process
The spent elecampane branches after steeping them to make a very strong decoction.
Elecampane (Inula helenium) Soapmaking Process
Frozen elecampane decoction. If not frozen, the various materials within the water will scorch upon contact with the sodium hydroxide (AKA lye).
Elecampane (Inula helenium) Soapmaking Process
Melting the solid fats along with the oils over very low heat.

Elecampane (Inula helenium) Soapmaking Process
The oils are all melted nicely now! They include an oil infusion of elecampane, by the way. It was very strong smelling, with that funky resinous odour that is typical for this plant; but the scent got completely lost during the soaping process. Next time I will be infusing a lot more elecampane leaves into the entire oil/fat mixture (and this way, by using a gentle heating method, I will also skip the step of aging the infused oil).
Elecampane (Inula helenium) Soapmaking Process
Elecampane ice cubes
Elecampane (Inula helenium) Soapmaking Process
Weighing the lye
Elecampane (Inula helenium) Soapmaking Process
Sprinkle lye over ice cubes
Elecampane (Inula helenium) Soapmaking Process
Waiting for the ice to melt...
Elecampane (Inula helenium) Soapmaking Process
Elecampane decoction lye - don't let this honeyed look fool you. This will burn like hell if you touch it!
There are few missing photos from the process, because when mixing the oils with the lye it's a bit of a time sensitive and very hands-on process. It looks similar to making icing, and the soap mixture looks very much like custard when it's ready for pouring into the moulds.
Elecampane (Inula helenium) Soapmaking Process
The soap bars I got lined up that day. It was a very productive soaping day! Elecampane at the bottom, Mastic at the centre, and Absinthe & Lavender at the top. All of them will be ready November 26th.
Elecampane Soap Logs
Logs of elecampane soaps which were very soft for pulling out of the Mold. I had to wait for ten days to do it!
Elecampane Soap Bar Logs
Elecampean soap logs gradually losing their golden look and turning olive-brown.
Elecampane Soap Bars -Slicing Time!
Elecampane soap logs are finally getting sliced!

Notice the "rind" - it will disappear once the soap is cured, due to oxidation and the gelling process.
Srapping & Labeling Soap Bars
Here is a glimpse into the packing and labeling step. Even though I won't get to wrap the Elecampane soap until November 26th, when they would be fully cured and ready for you to enjoy!
You can, however, pre-order them online already.

Wild Soap Bars

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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Pressing Olives

Olive Harvest Traffic Signs
Watch out for people with sticks harvesting olives! A creative traffic sign my brother scattered around the village.
Olive Sorting
My brothers' hands, sorting olives from leaves and branches.

We managed to pick all our olives in only 4 days, resulting in 6 sacks full of fruit, which were pressed into no less than six 18L jugs of olive oil (each weighing 16kg). We completed the harvest on Sunday, October 22nd, and wanted to take them to the olive press that night. It was my turn to do it, but with all the heavy lifting and it being my first time in the olive pressing plant, my brothers encouraged me to wait till tomorrow when one of them could go with me. The next day the olive pressing plant we usually go to was booked up. My brother called all the other plants in the area, and non of them was available to take us. I called the one that we usually work with and made an appointment for Tuesday morning. I was going to go there by myself, even though nobody was available to help me, because it's not good to have the olives off the trees for more than 48hrs before pressing them. They will begin to spoil and the oil may become rancid.

The next morning we learned that overnight, the machinery at the olive pressing plant broke, and they are very behind on their appointment schedule. I decided to go there anyway, at the time they told me to be there. Because showing up is half of the world, right?

When I arrived they basically ignored me, because they were absorbed in testing the machinery that was just fixed. So there went my plant to get help carrying the 5 bags of olives we had picked. They were not completely full, but they were heavy. I weighted them all and they totalled 133kg. After all this unloading and weighing I finally managed to get a word with the owner's son, who told me to basically come back in four hours, because that's how far behind they are on their schedule. I felt a bit discouraged, and decided to call two other pressing plants nearby that passed my brother's high standards (we are all perfectionists in our family, as it turned out). The one in the Julis (another Druze village next to Yirka, where I currently was). They did not give me any indication of how long I will be waiting, so I decided to stick with my plan of staying at the place where I already was, and making my presence an advantage. I was counting first and foremost on the fact that everybody went home, combined with having only a relatively small amount of olives, and also a little doze of old fashioned Middle Eastern customs.

Let me explain the latter: Setting off to the olive press alone was circumstantial, but is bound to garner some amount of sympathy, especially being a woman alone (at least Middle Eastern mysogony has some advantages). It was unusual that I had to carry all of my olives by myself - if it weren't for the machinery getting all of the staff's attention, I would have probably been not only gotten help for the bags, but also offered a demitasse of coffee while at it. Because hospitality is such a strong held value in this part of the world.

But most importantly: I knew that all the other people except for the two that were physically in line before me went home, they could probably squeeze my 133 kg of olives in between the larger runs. And I really, really, really didn't want to carry them into the car and out of the car again alone (even though it is doable).

A few minutes gone by and what I thought would happen, happened. All of a sudden I'm told it's my turn next. And of course, I knew I was taking a risk. And before I even managed to get my sacks of olives next to the last sorting sieve, And two minutes later the lady who's turn it really was showed up (she was my neighbour - no other than my daughter's horseback riding instructor). So before I even got it, I lost my turn, but stuck to my plan of staying right there and not giving up on pressing my olives this morning. I knew it was taking a big risk but I had a good feeling about it. I didn't feel bad about it either because the people who went home got called when their turn was approaching, so really I wasn't doing them any wrong. I just happen to be where I should have been at the right time...

It wasn't exactly fun with all of the machinery noise and uncertainty; but it wasn't exactly not fun either: the green, oily smell of the freshly squeezed olives, the olive oil everywhere you go, and anything you touch (good grease!), friendly faces with a common goal and common love for the land and the olives it yields. Perhaps the olive is a symbol of peace because it can be a social lubricant like no other, bringing communities that are seemingly different - together.

I waited a little bit longer, tried to help as much as I could doing last minute sorting for the olives. The owner's son came and offered me coffee, which turned out to be just be a pretence of hospitality and really just quietly telling me that after my neighbour's turn, it is going to be mine, and if anyone will ask me - my original appointment was 8:30am (really it was 11am). The time my olives actually got on the belt ended up being 11:30... Moral of the story: Show up and stay there.

At the Olive Pressing Plant
The conveyer's belt, feeding olives into the machines which will first wash them, then dry them, then press them and finally separate the oil from the water and pulp...
At the Olive Pressing Plant
Last sorting before feeding into the machine.
At the Olive Pressing Plant
Mysterious machinery which I do not know its role but am guessing is the centrifuge.
At the Olive Pressing Plant
Olive oil coming out at the end of the process - practically liquid gold!

At The Olive Oil Pressing Plant
A super-frothy bath of freshly pressed olive oil. What's floating at the top is actually going to turn into sediment, eventually. Particles from the fruit's pulp, which has intensely bitter taste at first. The olive oil needs to settle for about a month before the taste improves.

At The Olive Oil Pressing Plant

In the end, those 133 kilos yielded 32 kilo oil, which is about 24% yield. This amounted to just 2 more jugs of olives for our family. In total, we harvested and pressed 8 jugs of oils (144 kg). Not quite enough for the annual olive oil consumption of 5 households (two of which are with many children), but still very respectable. I will still need to get my olive oil for my soaps from elsewhere, but I'm very happy and proud taking part in this harvest and experiencing the process from start to finish. It really does give one much better appreciation for the finished product - olive oil for food, or the soap that can be made from it.

At The Olive Oil Pressing Plant

At The Olive Oil Pressing Plant
See you next year!

Olive Branch House
My nieces and nephews built an impromptu village with several huts from all the olive branches we pruned.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Crocus & Berry: Autumn Hike to Mt Meron

Mt. Meron
On a beautiful Saturday morning, Miss Tea and I set on a little hiking adventure up Mt Merton. It's became one of our most favourite parks, providing not only a great relaxing hike up a beautiful mountain, but also many beautiful lookouts, and year-around greenery that provides shade and the temperatures in this mountain (over 1000m elevation) are always cooler. But the best part is, there are almost always rare wildflowers to find there, different ones in each season. This time I was after the big yellow Sternbergia, or how we call it in Hebrew "Egg-Yolk Flower," a crocus-like flower that is only growing in very specific habitats in Israel, and is one of the protected species that attracts pilgrimage of Flower Viewers. That's the Israeli equivalent of the Japanese Hanami, except there are many seasons like this spread all over the country: crocus, iris, forest peonies, and more.
Red Hawthorne Berries
We started the trail with a bouffet of red hawthorne berries - kind powdery-textured and not as fragrant as the yellow ones, but certainly more photogenic.

Red Hawthorne Berries

Root Staircase
We walked up the picturesque trail among oaks and arbutus trees, some of them twisted to form living sculptures:

Arbuts & Oak Living Scultures
And the arbutus trees bearing the ripest, tastiest, jammy berries imaginable. They are very tannin when unripe; but if you are patient to wait for them o be really soft to the touch (they will feel like a gooey pouch of slightly leathery skin), you're in for a treat. Their inside is almost jelly-like, orange coloured, and I suspect contain a ton of both A and C vitamins. I wish I picked more to make a jam from. But they were so good we ate them as they are.

Arbutus Berries
Cercis silliquastrum is more noticeable in the spring, where its beautiful pink blossoms dot the green mountain with their delicate decoration. Now they provides a touch of citrine and lime fall colours to the mediterranean forest there.

Cercis silliquastrum: Fall Colours in Mt Meron
I was really hoping to find those yellow flowers everywhere, but we had no such luck. Instead, many early autumn crocuses, which were there for almost a couple of months now, so lost their novelty by now but looked special with the changing atmosphere and more greens and berries on the ground.

Fall Colours on Mt Meron
And then came the shocking surprise: a real, living, wild saffron crocus!
I only spotted two or three of them, but the holy triad and aroma of their stamens was unmistakable.

Saffron Crocus & Oak Leaves

In the end, I found only a single Sternbergia off the beaten track, because once we got to the peak of the mountain we were both too tired to walk an extra hour in the trail to where other hikers told us there would be a big colony of them. But I was content with this one, and decided that in a week or two I will go straight to the peak trail (an easy, circular trail that circumvents the peak and is rather flat in comparison to what we walked that day; and only takes an hour).

Sternbergia ("Egg Yolk Flower")
So we climbed back, picked a bunch of yellow hawthorne berries (they taste like very fragrant and juicy "Golden Delicious" apples, but more tart and delicious!). And of course, like all of our hikes, we ended up with an outdoors tea party, at the foothill of Mt Meron.

Tea Party on the foothill of Mt Meron
There are two more perfume related plants in this photo below. Can you identify or guess what they are? Leave a comment and enter to win a sampler trio of my Autumn crocus inspired and saffron-infused perfumes, Song of SongsRazala and Tamya.

Saffron, Rockrose & Moss



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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Carob Blossoms

Carob in Bloom
There are two carob trees by my house, a long-married couple, male and female, probably centennials. The male lives right beside my porch and dining room windows. I built the house right next to it on purpose: It gives shade and privacy, and lowers the temperatures in the building  by almost 5 degrees. But nothing is for free in this world, as they say, and the price we pay comes when the carob trees are mating, trying to make little carob "beans", also known to some as St. John's Bread. Carobs are generally edible, but this female produces dry and bland fruit, which only grafting could fix.  

Carob Blossoms
Carob buds, red and innocent, before the open and assault the senses with their pollen and perfume. As you can see, the tree doesn't waste any space and brings flowers from every inch of its body: branches large and small, and even the trunks shoot out little tine columns covered with sulfur-yellow pollen. The female flowers are scentless and just look like clusters of tiny green carobs...

Carob Blossoms

The smell of the male flowers is a nostalgic memory from the many falls I spent as a child playing under these trees and resting in their shade. To me it's a basic childhood memory like glue, pencil shaving and your favourite ice cream bar. However, anyone who comes into contact with these trees after reaching sexual maturity, would find the aroma vulgar if not repulsive. This botanical replica of the juicy secretions of male and female copulating is bang-on. Except for one thing: this botanical orgasm will last for about a month.

P.s. There is a scientific explanation for the sexual smell of carob blossoms: They contain the polyamine Cadaverine,  which is also found in human semen (and cadavers...), which is produced by breaking down the amino acid Lysine. Of course the carob tree does that in order to attract insects that typically feed on cadavers.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Olive Harvest

Black Syrian Olives

All members of the family take part in this annual tradition: Harvesting the blessing of olive fruit from our very own olive grove. We have about 60 olive trees in various ages (from several hundred years old transplants that were kicked off an avocado plantation about 20 years ago; trees we planted and grafted almost 40 years ago, and newer ones that don't even bear fruit yet).

We take a week off our real jobs and work harder than ever getting all the olives picked between the first rainfall (which washes the dust) and the second. Too much rain will spoil the olives rapidly and make them useless for olive oil. It is more of a regional family tradition than it is a profitable endeavour.

This year I'm especially excited to harvest the olives (a very tedious task, which I never particularly liked) because I've been using a lot of olive oil in my soaps and it's important for me to really experience the connection between the earth, plants and finished products - from start to finish. This is one of the main reasons I moved back to the village, and I hope to also grow and produce my own essential oils eventually.
Olive Harvest 2017

We grow the "Syrian" varietal, which is very sharp in favour and yields a lot of oil. We press most of them for oil, and set a side a little bit for pickling and eating.
Green Olives for Pickling
These green olives I set aside for pickling...

Olive Tree Acrobatics
Cirque de Huile:
Some olive harvest acrobatics performed by my sister-in-law.
Tools of the Trade
This little rake looks like a toy, but it's actually the most important tool of the trade... We use it to "brush" the olives off the branches. It saves a lot of fine manual labour and does not harm the tree as much as beating it with sticks.
Olive Harvest 2017
Okay... Time for a coffee break! I will post more pics as the harvest progresses. This year I also plan to go to the olive press myself to make the oil. Going to be fun!

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Summer Sage & Honey Soap

Summer Sage Harvest
In the harsh summer conditions, certain plants developed a defence mechanism that prevents them from complete dehydration in the long drought conditions. The Three-Lobed Sage (Salvia fruticosa) is one of them. Naturally, the leaves in the summer produce a different aroma, and seem more concentrated to me. When not covered totally in desert dust, the leaves have a beautiful silvery-yellow-green colour, and are crinkly and "closed". They open in the winter after they get a few gulps of rain; and then will become larger and greener, with the texture turning from dry suede into fresh velvet.

Sage harvest and olive oil infusion (for use in handmade soapmaking)

This particular sage (in Hebrew it can be translated literally into "Triangular Sage" because of its leaf made of three sections), shares many similar actions and properties with the garden/common/culinary sage, or as we call it in Hebrew, מרווה רפואית - literally translated as "medicinal sage" (Salvia officinalis), which is native to Europe. Our sage is actually gentler and safer than the latter, especially because of the lower thujone levels. Thujone interfers with the hormonal activity in the female body especially; and also has neorotixic and hallucinogenic influences when used in high dose.  Thujone in the wormwood plant is what gives the liquor absinthe its hallucinogenic properties.

Sage infusion in olive oil
Sage (S. fruticosa) is one of the most valued plants in the region, and so it is only natural that I wanted to include it in one of my concoctions. It is used for myriads of ailments, mostly using its antiseptic, expectorant and "drying" properties to treat colds, and is also an aid for women who wish to wean their babies from nursing - it dries the milk and saves the agony of breast infection in the process. It also helps with menstrual cramps and pain, and in all matter of indigestion. It also helps to clear and prevent Nephrolithiasis (kidney stones) and to fight fungal infections. It helps to calm the nerves, and used to treat headaches (especially as synergy with other local cure-alls such as za'atar and mint, in an oil infusion rubbed onto the temples). It is also used for anxiety and depression - the latter treated by the flowers, a less-known use of the plant.
As for its skin-related properties - it's a valued antimicrobial, astringent, cleansing and purifying plant, which is good against fungal and bacterial infections, but also eczema and psoriasis. Sage tea is excellent rinse for the scalp and will improve colour for dark hair, as well as give a shine and body to it if used instead of a mainstream conditioner.

Spent Sage Leaf
After I infused the leaves for one month in organic, local, cold-pressed olive oil, I strained the leaves (and composted them, of course).
Late Summer Sage
Another batch of leaves I brewed into a very strong tea, and made into ice cubes. If I didn't do that, all the nutrients and plant matter in the tea would get scorched by the caustic soda in the process of making the lye water.
Sage Tea Ice Cubes

Sage Tea Ice Cubes

Bringing on the Lye!
Once the caustic soda comes in contact with the water, a chemical reaction begins to take place, which generates heat very fast, and melts the ice cubes. Because i used only ice cubes, this lowered the temperature of the lye dramatically, which also results in less damage to the oil phase (once these two are mixed together).
Sage Lye Ice Tea...

Frankincense Tears

Frankincense tears, about to be ground up for the purpose of scenting and complementing the sage & honey soap. Myrrh is very beneficial for the skin, healing wounds and dehydrating. Frankincense also has healing benefits and both prevent the skin from aging prematurely.

Myrrh in Bain Marie

Frankincense and myrrh getting a Mary's bath (Bain Marie means being marinate in a bath, actually). They are both melting slowly into the olive oil... An excellent infusion on its own, by the way. A simple remedy and concoction for skin healing, massage and perfume.

The other oils I used in this particular soap are the same as all my soaps - a winning formula of olive oil, coconut, palm and castor oils. To this I added oil-infusion of myrrh and frankincense resins (added at the very end of the saponification process, which prevents their demolition by the lye), and honey. This was left for 48 hours before unwrapping the moulds (I use 1L milk cartons as my moulds - a great way to reuse something that would have otherwise be thrown directly to the trash; an also saves me miles of wax paper and rinsing and washing).
Sage & Honey Soap
I panicked at first because of the white crystals that formed on the top. I was certain that they were lye flakes that didn't melt. After consulting with my soap mentor, and testing, I was much relieved to learn that they are just soap crystals.

How this soap bar smells was a big surprise to me: it smells almost edible, in an earthy, wholesome kind of way. Not like candy but a little bit like honey cake. If you love a bar of soap that smells sweet and spicy but not in a conventional Christmas candle or cinnamon bun style - this is definitely for you!
Sage & Honey Soap Bar with Frankincense & Myrrh Resins
The soaps are hand-sliced and left to cure for a month. They will be ready a month later, on November 10th. You can pre-order them online though - I only have 16 bars so if you love sage and honey and incense, you want to make sure you got one set aside for you!

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