Under a cloudless December sky, the olive harvest in Litsarda gathers pace. Tractors pull bulging sacks of olives through narrow cobblestoned streets, while on the village outskirts a small army of men makes its way between gnarled olive trees, carefully liberating their yellow-green bounty with motorised combing machines. Here on the Greek island of Crete, it’s a sign that autumn is finally over.
Olives and Crete, inseparable throughout time. The Cretan Minoans are thought to have been the first the people to commercially cultivate the olive tree, around 3800 BC, while the olive press is also reputed to have been a Cretan invention. Today the island’s fertile soils nourish a reported 40 million olive trees (around 60 per inhabitant), with silvery green swathes carpeting valleys and hillsides across the rolling interior.
‘There’s hardly anyone on Crete who doesn’t own at least a few olive trees,’ says Litsarda resident and Greek national Valia Avgoustidi, whose own local farm boasts a small yet munificent grove. ‘Cretans never buy oil from the shop. We like the taste of the oil from our own particular village too much. To us, it’s the elixir of life.’
A short drive but a million miles away from the island’s heavily commercialised northern coast, the landscape of Crete’s rugged hinterland is peppered with whitewashed villages, Byzantine churches and small farms, all dominated by a central spine of snow-capped peaks. Litsarda, a small inland village of around 120 residents to the southeast of Chania, is well known for producing some of the finest Cretan olives.
The pastoral charms of Litsarda were not lost on Valia Avgoustidi and her partner Giannis, who decided to move to the village in 2014. For Valia, who had spent many years in England and Scotland, it was a life-changing moment.
‘I felt it was time to get back to my Greek roots,’ she says. ‘In these difficult times, we also wanted to start a business that would make a difference to the local Cretan economy. A lot of people in Crete are suffering right now with a lack of jobs and low incomes.’
Purposely purchasing a Litsarda smallholding with its own olive grove, the Avgoustidis set about establishing Hand Picked Greece, an agro-tourism company offering soap-making workshops to overseas visitors. Using completely organic ingredients – herbs and olive oil straight from the farm, goats’ milk and honey from local producers, and wild herbs from the nearby mountains – these teach participants how to make extra virgin olive oil soap, as well as infused oils, beeswax ointments and lotions.
For the Avgoustidis, surrounded by such rich natural resources, the decision to make soap was made almost immediately. Perfecting the soap-making process took a lot longer.
‘The first batches were pretty bad,’ admits Valia with a smile. ‘After that we had to work out which extra ingredients to add to different bars and establish a supply network. But the local people were really enthusiastic, especially when it came to reviving an old Cretan tradition.’
A forgotten heritage
Olive oil has been used in soap making for millennia. As with all fats and oils, it is transformed into soap when mixed with lye (a strongly alkaline substance, usually sodium or potassium hydroxide). Over the centuries, the manufacturing process has been refined, while various additives – such as herbs, vegetables, honey, minerals and even algae – have been introduced to the soap mix to give bars special properties.
Hand Picked Greece follows in a long line of Greek and Cretan soap making outfits. According to Greek legend, the cleansing properties of ‘soap’ were accidentally discovered on the Aegean island of Lesvos by a famous local poet called Sappho. The chemical name for soap making – saponification – supposedly honours her name.
By the late 15th century, soap – albeit of varying quality – was being produced across Europe. Perhaps the most famous soap-making city was Marseilles, which became heavily dependent on Cretan olive oil after the failure of the olive harvest in France in the late 1600s.
The increasing demand for Cretan olive oil saw exports double throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, while it simultaneously sparked a boom in local soap making. At its zenith, this saw olive oil soap from numerous Cretan factories transported across Asia Minor and the Mediterranean. These bars became so sought after that wily soap makers in other countries would copy the Cretan soap ‘stamp’ to increase sales of their own substandard creations.
Cretans also made olive oil soap for use at home, especially during times when they had limited access to resources. It was not so long ago that the women of Crete would gather fetsolado – the oil left as sediment at the bottom of barrels – and use it to make large quantities of homemade soap. Sometimes this was a collective activity where all the women of the village participated and shared the soap at the end of the process.
‘In the past almost every grandmother on the island would make olive oil soap for cleaning their hair, their body, their clothes,’ says Valia Avgoustidi. ‘But then mass-produced bars came along and people lost the habit.’
With the Greek economy still in dire straits, more and more Cretans are turning to the land to make a living. Many are swapping a consumerist lifestyle for one where sustainability and a closeness with nature are the new priorities.
‘Crete hasn’t been as badly affected economically as other parts of Greece,’ says Aristides Stratakis, a shop owner in Litsarda. ‘But when you can’t withdraw money from the cashpoint, it really forces you to re-evaluate things. More people are finding that a simpler life based on nature is actually more reliable and rewarding.’
A rise in the number of Cretans making natural products has even seen the development of a local system of bartering. In many villages, bars of olive oil soap are now exchanged for honey and oranges, while plumbers and carpenters offer their services in return for fresh fish and raki (grape brandy).
Despite the novelty of moving away from Euro-based trade, this kind of exchange economy is actually deeply rooted in Cretan history. Right up until the mid-20th century, bartering was still an important aspect of rural life on the island.
‘Back then payment in olive oil was commonplace,’ says Stratakis. ‘These days, when people have empty wallets but well-stocked granaries or oil cellars, non-cash trade is a natural evolution, or devolution, however you want to view it.’
Raising the bar
It is only recently that olive oil soap manufacture has really taken off on Crete as a grassroots industry. Far from the mass production of yesteryear, the emphasis today is on quality over quantity, with boutique soap-making operations dotted across the island.
Over in Angeliana, a small village of 800 residents and four churches around 30 miles east of Litsarda, the popular Athos Workshop typifies the trend. Founded by Manolis and Paraskevi Plevrakis, a young couple who moved to Crete from the Greek mainland in 2007, it comprises a shop and soap making kitchen, both housed in a beautifully converted farm building.
‘Our way of life was completely transformed the day we took ownership of a small olive grove and kitchen garden just outside the village,’ explains Manolis. ‘We began playing around with all the natural materials that were suddenly available to us, eventually producing some bars of basic olive oil soap. At that stage we just gave them away to our friends.’
The Plevrakis’ early attempts at soap-making proved such a hit that they soon decided to go into full-time production. Today the couple’s hand-made organic soaps, extracts and creams – all of which incorporate the finest local olive oil, herbs and essential oils – are a big hit with Crete’s legions of overseas visitors. Through an online shop they are also exported to a growing number of countries around the world.
‘It feels good to reconnect with Cretan heritage,’ says Manolis, who made much of the soap-making equipment he uses himself. ‘Every time I send out a package of bars overseas I think of Crete’s ancient soap makers who once did the same.’
Soap manufactured on an industrial scale is made using a technique called hot process saponification, after which the resultant soap and glycerin (a simple sugar alcohol) are separated. Removing the glycerin prevents soap bars from shrinking on the shelf, but high reaction temperatures mean artificial preservatives must be added to give the soap a longer life.
By contrast, handmade olive oil soap makers use a cold process method. Here the oil is only heated enough to mix it with the lye. This technique results in a high glycerin content soap, which has far better moisturising properties.
Following the cold saponification process, Manolis’s lovingly created bars are left in storage for three months to ‘cure’.
‘This allows them to solidify and mellow,’ explains the amiable Greek, inspecting a maturing batch of bars. ‘When we made the first soap it was very tempting to use it straight away. But then I thought about the long history of olive oil soap on Crete and decided I was happy to wait a few days.’
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