After last year’s holiday trip to Italy and the trip to the US and UK the year before, we decided to go back to our native Finland this year. It was a good decision because the ancient wood-framed and puttied blown glass windows of our house needed some tender loving care. So, I ended up spending a lot of time working with glazing putty.
It’s a remarkable substance, glazing putty. It’s a simple mixture of natural ingredients – linseed oil and chalk. But correctly mixed and applied it can last a very long time exposed to the elements in temperatures ranging from +40C to -40C while keeping the wood underneath fully protected. And working with that mixture of rich linseed oil and slightly exfoliating chalk powder makes your hands super smooth.
But, it wasn’t all windows and window putty. As I mentioned in my last blog post about all sorts of alternative uses for soap – which you can read here – I had read about soap being used as bait for catfish. That sounded intriguing: too interesting not to try at least once.
Now, we don’t see a lot of catfish in the Gulf of Pernå where our house is situated. In the bulrushes you’ll get the odd pike and angling from the jetty it’s all perch. But I figured there was no harm in trying so before leaving I decided to make a small experimental batch of fishbait soap to take along to Finland.
Google told me catfish like soap that smells of aniseed and garlic. That sounded pretty potent so maybe fish like it smelly – with a hefty “throw” as the chandlers like to call it? If that was the case then I would treat my carnivorous little perch to a really mind-blowing throw and so I decided to add a little bit of fish sauce to the aniseed and garlic combo. I’ve never had any inclination to add condiments to soap before but there’s always a first, right?
Well, mind-blowing is a fairly accurate description of my new-found fragrance blend. When my little innocent-looking fishbait fish came out of the mould it soon became obvious that I had created a monster. They smelled incredibly bad and the smell was so strong that they had to be wrapped in several ziplock bags to go in my suitcase.
Nobody else in the family would touch the fishbait soap and I didn’t have much time for fishing. So, the testing phase was limited to one quick try on a cold and windy day when the fish probably weren’t in the mood to get hooked anyway. Needless to say there was no luck – which was quite a relief because had this soap been hugely successful I might have felt obliged to make more of it.
The rest of the batch is now safely stowed away in several ziplock bags in an airtight mason jar some 10 000km from where I am now. It feels like a comfortable distance.. 🙂
Yet, to balance things there was success too.
Last year when I did my first experiments with snail mucin in soap (you can read about it here) I added snail mucus to cold process bar soap – because bar soap is what I do. The snail mucus definitely had a positive impact on how the lather felt in use, but since soap normally spends such a short time on the skin it’s doubtful whether any lasting skin benefits can be expected.
That’s why I decided to try the snail mucin i a product that would stay a little longer on the skin and so I made a small batch of well-superfatted snail beldi soap.
Beldi soap or Moroccan black soap is potassium soap paste made with olive oil and crushed olives. In Moroccan steam room hamams it’s used as a kind of cleansing skin mask: applied, left on the skin for about 10 minutes and then removed by rinsing and vigorous scrubbing with a coarse wash glove, a kessa. You can read more about my first beldi experiment here.
My snail beldi featured snail mucus instead of crushed olives and to test it I needed a proper steam room environment. For that purpose Finland is good; almost every household has a sauna which is essentially a steam room and I got plenty of opportunity to test the well-matured snail beldi.
I like the way it feels. The snail mucus gives the olive oil soap paste more elasticity than ordinary beldi soap and the feel on the skin is very soft and cushioned. The after-feel is pleasant and it works well even on my dry complexion.
I also learnt that rinsing off olive oil soap paste with icy cold lake water doesn’t work so well. In warm water the paste is a pleasure to handle but in cold temperature it caked up on the skin like a stiff, opaque layer that just didn’t want to dissolve. A reminder once again that temperature has a big impact on the solubility of soap in general and olive oil soap in particular.
In between applying putty and painting windows I took some time reconnecting with the forest around our house. During the long summer holidays of my childhood I spent lots of time in that forest; I learnt to love it and it still feels like a nice, friendly place to me.
Spruce Resin Salve
One thing I had been reading up on since my last trip to Finland was spruce resin (from Picea abies). The smell of spruce resin takes me right back to my childhood and reminds me of my mom patiently removing the sticky substance from my long hair with turpentine after some epic spruce-climbing adventure, gently suggesting that I rather climb deciduous trees in the future..
More recently pharmaceutical companies in Finland have placed spruce resin in the limelight. Spruce resin has been used to treat wounds and burns since ancient times and now scientific studies in Finland have confirmed the healing effects of spruce resin.
Much like the snail protects and heals itself with its mucus the spruce protects and heals itself with its resin. And those healing properties work on human skin too. Spruce resin on skin is antimicrobial, heals wounds and enhances skin re-generation. The Finnish pharmaceutical spruce resin products currently on the market are indicated for acute and chronic wounds, burns and fungal infections.
Good stuff in other words and according to the manufacturers of Finnish spruce resin products, the resin is collected without harming the trees. Healthy trees have the best quality resin and so the well-being of the trees is in the interest of the pharmaceutical companies.
On my walks in the forest I kept a close eye on the spruces (Finnish forests are full of spruces) to see if anyone would present some nice and easily accessible resin. Sure enough, I soon came across this beauty and quite a few others.
I gathered a fistful of fragrant resin droplets and yes, the thought of incorporating it in soap did cross my mind. But I knew I wouldn’t have easy access to more any time soon so rather than adding my precious resin to a rinse-off product that spends seconds on the skin, I decided to make some spruce salve with it for future scrapes and burns and possible fungal infections. The resin was easy to melt with some local South African extra virgin olive oil and some South African beeswax. Now I have a beautiful anhydrous salve for personal use with the best ingredients from both my worlds.
The forest yielded some other interesting things too. Just before leaving Cape Town I had made some experiments dyeing wool with dyeball mushrooms. And now I kept an eye out for fungi that could be used for dyeing. A real treat would have been a purple dye polypore (Hapalopilus rutilans) which gives purple dye in an alkaline environment, but alas, no such luck this time.
I found a few chaga mushrooms, but all of them on live trees and none on trees I own myself so I left them as they were, content with just snapping pictures of them.
What I did find though, both on growing trees, tree stumps and on fallen trunks, was a large number of tinder polypores (Fomes fomentarius).
As the name suggests tinder polypores were once used for making fires by catching sparks from flint or steel. Tinder polypores can burn for a very long time without a flame and were also used to transport fire from one place to another.
The flesh of the fungus was processed and turned into a fabric used for garments. In medicine tinder polypore was used by surgeons as a styptic to stem blood flow from wounds.
I also found some beautiful birch polypores (Piptoporus betulinus).
Like the chaga mushroom the birch polypore has an impressive range of scientifically confirmed medicinal properties. It works as an immune system modulator and it has powerful antimicrobial properties. Like the tinder polypore it works as a styptic and can be used as a band-aid. It’s a real shaver’s friend because in addition to the styptic properties it can be used as a razor strop.
The useful properties of these mushrooms have been known for millennia. Ötzi, the “ice man” who lived more than 5000 years ago and was found in a melting glacier in the Ötztal alps, carried both tinder polypore and birch polypore on his journey. Exactly what he expected to do with them we don’t know, but he must have kept them because he knew they were useful.
When foraging for polypores you need to be careful to follow local rules and regulations wherever you are. Some polypores are endangered and should be left in peace for that reason. Some cannot be harvested without injury to the tree (e.g. the chaga mushroom) and can’t be taken without the tree-owner’s permission. Because of this the gathering of polypores is excluded from the right to public access – the everyman’s right – in Finland.
The beautiful birch polypore specimens in the picture above were on somebody elses tree, but on one of my own birches I found a large, old, dry birch polypore which I harvested.
It’s a very interesting material. Extremely light (can be used for floats) and super smooth, like a smoother than smooth chamois. Dried birch polypores have been used as pin cushions and the material certainly works well for that purpose.
But what about soap? Couldn’t I incorporate these great fungi in an amazing healing soap? Well, being neither a chemist, biologist or a physician I have no idea how well any of the active substances would survive in the high pH environment of coldprocess soap. I also have no idea about effective dosage in a rinse off product like soap. Amazing yes; healing – not so sure.
But did my doubts about transferring health benefits from the fungi to soap stop me from making soap with them? Not a chance! The thought of Ötzi climbing the alps carrying these mushrooms in ancient times was way too romantic and inspiring to just let go of. And so I decided to make an Ötzi soap.
I made a tea from birch polypore, tinder polypore and red-banded polypore (Fomitopsis pinicola) aka tiaga mushroom, another common polypore that would have been familiar to Ötzi, also with medicinal properties. And, because it was summer and there were loads of wild flowers everywhere I decided to add some yarrow (Achillea millefolium), st.john’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) and wild chamomile (Matricaria discoidea) to the tea.
Of those three herbs Ötzi would have been familiar with yarrow and st. john’s wort, but probably not with wild chamomile. Wild chamomile grows wild in Northern Europe today, but is indigenous to North America and may not have been around in Europe five thousand years ago. But, Ötzi probably wouldn’t have come across much soap either so I’m allowing myself a bit of poetic licence here.
I added lye to my tea and made a small batch of gentle bastile soap with coconut oil and extra virgin olive oil and added some bergamot and peppermint essential oil that I happened to have handy.
For the light green colour I used powdered chlorella and for the top I used a Northern European plant that Ötzi would have been well familiar with: reindeer lichen (Caldonis stellaris). As the name suggests this lichen serves as food for reindeer and like the polypores it has antimicrobial properties. This particular reindeer lichen is known as “window lichen” in Scandinavia. It’s highly absorbent and has been used to absorb condensation moisture gathering between double glazed windows.
The lichen on top of the soap makes for a light exfoliant. It’s hard when dry, but softens immediately as it gets wet. Again, you need to proceed with caution when foraging for lichens and follow rules and regulations. The right to public access in Finland does not include gathering lichens.
And now my Ötzi soap has travelled to South Africa with me. I haven’t tested it yet. I figure I might save it for a Christmas treat, a souvenir from my quick visit to the northern hemisphere summer, the forest, the crisp days and light nights, and the lingering sunsets after full days of fixing windows..
..but the fishbait soap I’d rather forget..