• Publishers' Note Spring 2013

    Publishers' Note Spring 2013

    Maybe you’ve noticed that the “spirits” of Vermont are on the move and showing up at liquor outlets, farmers’ markets, restaurants—even your friends’ homes—throughout the state. Are they friendly spirits, you ask? You bet! As with local food, Vermont is quickly becoming a state with a flourishing locally distilled spirits industry.

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  • A Passion for Artisan Soap

    A Passion for Artisan Soap

    My soap-making journey started a decade or so ago, when I was becoming more and more sensitized (allergic) to mainstream, detergent-type soaps. Eventually I just couldn’t use them anymore. As I researched the subject, I became alarmed at what was being used in cosmetic products on the market, not to mention all the harmful chemicals leaching into our waterways as a result of those products. I decided to start making my own soap, and the enthusiasm I had back then for soap making has now turned into a passion and a business for me. My only regret is that I didn’t start making them sooner!

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  • The Story of Bread

    The Story of Bread

    Green Mountain Flour, a new artisan bakery in Windsor owned and operated by Zachary Stremlau and Daniella Malin, takes a unique approach to its craft: it uses local wheat, local milling, and local fuel to create its flours, breads, and pizzas. Here, woodcuts that comprise the bakery’s logo tell “the story of bread,” echoing a time in early New England when, according to Zachary and Daniella, “the farmers knew the miller, the miller milled with stone, and the baker baked with fire.”

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  • Classy Wheat

    Classy Wheat

    Last year, I arrived at The Putney School as their new gardener and was tasked with getting the high school students at this Putney boarding and day school excited about gardening. Early on, the farm manager told me he had planted some wheat on the edge of one of the farm’s hayfields. I was intrigued.

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  • Set the Table with Maple Mixed Drinks

    Set the Table with Maple Mixed Drinks

    While Vermonters know that maple flows well beyond the breakfast table, we don’t regularly take it behind the bar. So when, at the request of Local Banquet, I started on the quest of tippling the tree, I had some good starting points, but mostly got to invent. Some of the creations were immediately delicious, while others needed to stick to their day jobs.

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  • Down Home Distilling

    Down Home Distilling

    Here’s the first thing you should know about making specialty liquors: cupcake vodka is not made by fermenting cupcakes. Likewise for the cotton candy, cookie dough, whipped cream, and caramel vodkas all lining store shelves today. These trendy varieties are made by adding flavoring after the vodka is distilled; it’s why we can have cocktails that resemble a dessert buffet. For many consumers today, this is the most familiar way to make a vodka stand out from the rest. But it isn’t the only way.

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  • Winemaking in Barre

    Winemaking in Barre

    I was drinking a glass of wine with a colleague when she told me that she and her husband make wine. In a garage. With friends. I was intrigued. I know plenty of people who brew beer in their bathtub (so to speak) but I’d never met anyone who makes wine at home. When I expressed interest, she invited me to join their next winemaking season. So I put a reminder in my Google calendar and eight months later, voila: “Call Marianne about winemaking” popped up.

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  • Vermont Distillers Map

    Vermont Distillers Map

    Vermont is home to a thriving spirits industry. Our in-state distillers are producing a wide variety of products from vodka and maple liqueurs to gin and rye whiskey. Many of them are winning national acclaim and international awards for their fine quality and appealing flavor. A number of the distilleries have their own tasting rooms where the products they make can be sampled and purchased. You may also find local distillers at farmers’ markets, special events, or festivals around the state.

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  • Hopeful on Hemp

    Hopeful on Hemp

    “Hemp For Victory!” the poster reads.

    Hanging in the House Agriculture Committee’s hearing room in the Vermont Statehouse, and put there by who knows who, it’s a poster that to some would be more appropriate in a college dorm room 30 years ago. In reality, it’s from 1942 and was produced by the United States Department of Agriculture to promote a film encouraging U.S. farmers to grow hemp to support the war effort.

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  • Farmers' Kitchen—No Kid Left Behind

    Farmers' Kitchen—No Kid Left Behind

    Tannery Farm Cashmeres is a small goat farm located in the Northeast Kingdom. My husband and I breed and raise Spanish goats that produce high-quality cashmere fiber and have healthy, robust bodies. Our focus is breeding for quality cashmere on quality meat goats, with the farm’s primary products being cashmere-producing breeding stock and chevon (goat meat), which is handled through my other company, Vermont Chevon.

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  • Seventy-Two Is Not Thirty-Five

    Seventy-Two Is Not Thirty-Five

    I spent seven hours yesterday at my daughter’s house
    helping her expand their garden by at least ten times.
    We dug up sod by the shovelful, shook off the dirt as
    best we could; sod into the wheelbarrow and off to the
    pile at the edge of the yard. Then all that over and over
    again. Five hours total work-time, with time out for lunch
    and supper. By the time I got home I knew all too well
    that seventy-two is not thirty-five; I could barely move.

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A Passion for Artisan Soap

A Passion for Artisan Soap

Written By

Joann Darling

Written on

March 01 , 2013

My soap-making journey started a decade or so ago, when I was becoming more and more sensitized (allergic) to mainstream, detergent-type soaps. Eventually I just couldn’t use them anymore. As I researched the subject, I became alarmed at what was being used in cosmetic products on the market, not to mention all the harmful chemicals leaching into our waterways as a result of those products. I decided to start making my own soap, and the enthusiasm I had back then for soap making has now turned into a passion and a business for me. My only regret is that I didn’t start making them sooner!

How are handmade soaps made? I’ll spare you the detailed chemistry lesson and just give an overview. Soap is formed through the hydrolysis of an oil or fat in an alkaline solution.
The chemical reaction that occurs is called saponification, and the products that result are glycerol and fatty acid salts. The alkaline solution can come from any of the following sources: potash (potassium carbonate) leached from the ash of woody plants; soda ash (sodium carbonate) leached from the ashes of saltwater plants; and sodium or potassium hydroxide from a reaction with soda or potash and lime (calcium oxide). The oil or fat can come from either vegetable sources, such as olive oil, or animal sources, such as beef tallow or pork lard.

Once the soap has been thoroughly blended, essential oils and powdered herbs can be added. Then the mixture is poured into wooden moulds to set. For the soaps I sell, I like to use herbs I grow myself. One of my favorites for adding to soap would have to be lavender (Lavendula angustifolia); it’s one of the most well-loved scents with its calming and relaxing effects, and is gender neutral. I also enjoy growing lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus) for its fresh and uplifting fragrance.

After 48 hours, the soap is firm enough to cut into bars, and they will take an additional six weeks to fully cure and dry. In addition to using my own herbs, I have lately been calling local wild game processors to obtain bear fat and deer tallow, and have plans to expand into shampoos for people and pets using sunflower oil produced in Vermont.


Soap issuch an omnipresent word that no matter what language you speak or continent you’re on, no further explanation is needed—or is there? In the Dictionaire Oeconomique of 1750, soap is defined as:

…a composition of Oil of oliancientve, lime and ashes of the Herb Kali or Saltwort (Salsola kali); the chief use is to wash and clean Linnen. There are two sorts there of, which are distinguished by their colour, viz. White and Black

That’s quite specific as to ingredients and use! What excites me most about producing handmade soap is that I feel connected to an ancient tradition that seems to never be out of style—or at least is resistant to being forgotten. Regardless of what “soap” was originally made of or used for, I am glad our ancestors realized its value and embraced the craft.

The origins of soap are said to reach as far back as 2800 BC, when concoctions of ash and fats appear on Sumerians’ clay tablets. Pliny the Elder of Rome, in the Historiae Naturalis, lists a medicinal soap-like recipe, using goat grease and spruce ash, to treat skin disorders. There is also a beautiful Roman legend that attributes the discovery of soap to the goddess Athena. It tells of how women washing clothes below Mount Sapo (Sapo Hill) one day noticed the ease with which the clothing became clean, and that there was an odd occurrence of foam along the riverbank. On Sapo Hill there was a temple to Athena where people often made animal sacrifices, and the ash and fat that accumulated produced a crude soap-like substance that washed down the hill and eventually into the river below. Somehow they connected the foam to cleaner clothes?

At least by the first century we have a sense that a soap-like substance was being made and used. The best and most identifiable account of soap production can be found in a 12th-century Italian book, Mappae Clavicula: A Key to the World of Medieval Techniques. The following is an English translation from its original Latin prose:

#280 How Soap is made from Olive oil or Tallow

Spread well burnt ashes from good logs over woven wickerwork made of tiny withies, or on a thin-meshed strong sieve, and gently pour hot water on them so that it goes through drop by drop. Collect the lye in a clean pot underneath and strain it two or three times through the same ashes, so that the lye becomes strong and coloured. This is the first lye of the soap maker. After it has clarified well let it cook, and when it has boiled for a long time and has begun to thicken, add enough oil and stir well. Now, if you want to make lye with lime, put a little good lime in it, let the above mentioned lye boil by itself until it is cooked down and reduced to thickness. Afterwards, allow to cool in a suitable place whatever has remained there of the lye or watery stuff. This clarification is called the second lye of the soap maker. Afterwards, work [the soap] with a little spade for 2, 3 or 4 days, so that it coagulates well and is dewatered, and lay it aside for use. If you want to make [your soap] out of tallow the process will be the same, though instead of oil put well-beaten beef tallow and a little wheat flour according to your judgment, and let them cook to thickness as was said above. Now put some salt in the second lye that I mentioned and cook it until it dries out, and this will be the afronitrum for soldering.

One could not successfully create soap (at least what we consider soap today) from this recipe found in the Mappae Clavicula without going through a lot of trial and error, and wasted ingredients. (And what exactly is “woven wickerwork made of tiny withies?”) Back then, the trade/craft/art of soap making would have best been learned through an apprenticeship with a “master” soap-boiler.

Thankfully, today one can find many wonderful books about handcrafting soap, such as The Complete Soapmaker, by Norma Coney;Handcrafted Soap, by North Light Books; and Susan Miller Cavitch’s The Soap Makers Companion. The tradition and skill of crafting soap continues today among those who produce handmade soap using natural oils, fats and additives.


What do I mean when I say handmade soap? It would be, but not limited to, a soap produced with oils or fats in their true form (not synthesized), and one that would also embrace natural additives such as honey versus processed sugar. This soap would also contain all of the natural glycerol produced during the saponification process. (I’ve been told that some commercial soap companies sell the glycerol as a byproduct—too bad, as glycerin is what gives soap its moisturizing quality.)

Soap making for me will always be a craft and an art. From the moment I used my first bar of handmade soap, I was hooked. Nothing could be better than a warm bath with the alluring fragrance of a thousand blossoms encapsulated in the creamy lather of homemade soap.

About the Author

Joann Darling

Joann Darling

Joann Darling lives in Barre, in the homestead where she grew up and where today she practices and teaches skills in traditional arts. Her soap company is called Green Sylk Soap Co. You can visit her booth at the Capital City Farmers’ Market.

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A quarterly magazine devoted to covering local food, sustainable farming, and the many people building the Vermont food system.

Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.


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