Soap making

One Saturday nearly 2 years ago, not long before the world as we knew it changed from one of freedoms that we really didn’t appreciate to one of lockdowns, masks and quarantine, we were at the market in Bagnères de Bigorre. It’s a great market with stalls selling everything from Pyrénéen sheep’s cheese to handmade jewellery, marinated olives of every size and shape to second hand books, organic fruit and vegetables to loaves of bread so big that you only buy a couple of slices. I bought some hand made soap and got chatting to the lady selling it; she told me she had a shop and workshop in Arreau, a town in the next valley and she ran soap making courses. I took a card and promised to be in touch; I’ve long fancied learning to make my own soap.

We didn’t go back to the Pyrenees before covid hit, but I kept the card and contacted her earlier this year; she said she’d be doing courses this summer, so I signed up.

We went to Arreau in the camper, the forecast wasn’t great, but a few days break would do us both good.

We had one lovely, sunny day, when I went to Arreau market and Nick did a full day’s cycling. He managed to collect several cols over the three days, in spite of the thunder, hailstones, rain and low cloud for the rest of our visit.

Arreau market
The weather wasn’t great

On the Friday I spent a fascinating 4 hours, the first two learning about saponification indices and the different properties of various oils, whether they’re hardening, give good lather, moisturising, etc and how to work out if a specific combination will make a decent soap. 

Eventually we got to the actual soap making process, working in gloves, safety glasses and white coats as the caustic soda that’s mixed with the oils is obviously not a nice chemical. We weighed our chosen oils, caustic soda, essential oils to perfume the soap and colourants, mixed them all up and poured them into moulds. They had to solidify overnight, before we could unmould and slice them, so I went back to the shop the following morning to finish off and collect what I’d made.

Everything weighed out
My soap looks like fudge!
The end product

It has to cure for 6 weeks, open to the air, so I’ve put it in my workshop, which smells gorgeous. 

Nick was keen to see the process, so I made a small batch of “mechanic’s” soap with oils I had in stock as it took a few days for what I ordered online to arrive. Olive oil, coconut oil, coffee grounds for exfoliation and lemon oil to remove grease. It’s not a pretty soap, but I hope it’ll work. As I didn’t have a mould, I used an empty orange juice carton, which worked fine!

My friend Mart is keen to make her own soap too, so she came round and we made a second batch of mechanic’s soap for her; all we need now is the time to put our new found knowledge into practice – oh, and some interesting moulds!

Mechanic’s soap

One sunny Sunday

While having a look around the stalls at a village fête a few weeks ago, I bumped into one of my old students, who had a stand showing the paintings and pottery she’s done. She invited me to share her stand at a craft fair a couple of weeks later and, as I’m not cycling much at the moment, it seemed a good idea.

Dominique came round to help me select a few pieces to display, insisting that it didn’t matter that I didn’t have anything to sell; she didn’t either, it was more a case of simply getting our work seen.

I’d need some sort of poster to tell people who I was, so I made one in patchwork and machine embroidery and put it in a frame. 

The day dawned grey, but it was going to get hot and sunny, so I wore a top that I made from bits of reclaimed lace, the trial run for another lace top that I put on the mannequin that Gemma sent for my birthday. I had the textile arts book that I made last winter as well as a few other bits.

My end of the table

It was a great day, with dozens of artists of every type displaying and selling their wares, potters, painters, stained glass makers, poets, and all of a very high standard.

The local journalist was quite taken with the fact that I could actually wear my particular type of art, earning me a mention and two photos in the local paper.

I bumped into plenty of friends as well as lots of folk I didn’t know and had a lovely, relaxing day in the shade of the trees (Dominique had bagged a really good spot for us). Next time I might have a stand of my own and maybe even have the time to make a few little items to sell.

Sardine tins!

Tour de France 2021

We love to watch the Tour de France; it usually involves cycling for several hours to spend just a few seconds watching the world’s greatest cyclists wizz past, then several more hours cycling home again. It might sound insane, but the atmosphere is always fantastic, making it a great day out.

Obviously the best place to see the Tour is in the mountains, where the peloton might be a bit split up and will certainly be moving less quickly than normal. 

With this in mind, Nick organised a club run in the Pyrenees on Sunday, days before the Tour would come through. As I can’t cycle much at the moment, he’d go in the camper on Saturday, ride Saturday and Sunday, then ride home on Monday, leaving the camper parked at a friend’s house. We’d then both go back in the car on Tuesday to watch the Tour Wednesday and Thursday, before heading home. A much needed break. 

It didn’t quite go to plan, however, as rain clouds gathered on Sunday night, depositing their contents very generously on Monday morning. Nick set off to ride home, but within a very few kilometres was soaked through (his shoes took a full 3 days to dry!). The forecast was for more of the same for the next couple of days, so he turned back, came home in the camper and we watched the mountain stages on the internet.

Wednesday’s stage saw them leave the mountains and the weather improved; Nick cycled to Montgaillard, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, while I painted the gite kitchen (more later).

The following stage was going through the Landes, which is fairly flat; feeling deprived of my usual TdF fix, we drove to the little village of Brocas and joined most of the village’s population on the roadside. We’d both had appointments in the morning, so missed the publicity caravan, but saw the Tour come through at incredible speed, causing the sort of air turbulence normally associated with express trains. The local Bandas band was playing, the bar was doing a roaring trade and even the Gendarmes were friendly and chatty, in addition to which, Kieran and Alice joined us. 

The Tour finished the following Sunday; sadly, Mark Cavendish didn’t manage to break Eddy Merckx’s record for the number of stages won in the Tour, but there’s always next year.

If you look closely, you can spot the yellow jersey wearer in the middle of the group – pure chance!