Crete: An ancient trade

In the bucolic backcountry of Europe's southernmost island, a pioneering Greek couple perfect an ancient heritage.

By Daniel Allen
Published 22 Mar 2016, 08:00 GMT, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 12:05 BST
Athos Workshop.

Athos Workshop.

Photograph by Daniel Allen

I'm going to be late for soap-making class. I blame my rental car's erratic satnav, or possibly my horrible spelling of Cretan place names. Having counted on the presence of an olive grove or two to guide me to the village of Angeliana (also known as Aggeliana), my navigational problems are compounded by one small fact. The interior of Crete is all olive groves.

Eventually my Volkswagen Polo pulls up outside the Athos Workshop with an impressive screech of brakes. Save for two elderly men in black breeches, shirts and boots, who sit contemplating a half-empty bottle of raki, the entire street of whitewashed houses is deserted. December may be olive harvest time on Crete, but Angeliana is not exactly a hive of industry.

Inside the workshop — which turns out to be a beautifully converted stone farm building — Manolis and Paraskevi Plevrakis nevertheless look to have had a busy morning, with packaged orders of soap and other cosmetics lined up against one wall. With their curly locks, tanned complexions and ready smiles, the young Greek couple are a picture of health and high spirits.

Manolis shakes my hand, dismisses my tardiness with a wave, hands me a hairnet, and invites me to join him in the 'kitchen'.

Soap is something we use every day, but how many of us actually think about how it's made? In Fight Club, Edward Norton and Brad Pitt kickstart their unorthodox bout of soap-making by raiding a liposuction clinic. Thankfully on Crete, extra virgin olive oil takes the place of unwanted human fat in the saponification process.

"Essentially there are two ways to make soap," explains Manolis, breaking out pots, weighing scales and a giant electric blender. "You mix an oil or fat with a strong alkali, with or without much heat. Here at the Athos Workshop we use the cold process, which gives a high glycerin content bar with excellent moisturising properties."

The process of olive oil soap making has a centuries-old history on Crete.

"There's hardly anyone on Crete who doesn't own at least a few olive trees," says Manolis. "In the past, almost every grandmother on the island would make olive oil soap for their family. But then mass-produced bars came along and people lost the habit."

The Plevrakises, who relocated to Crete from Athens in 2007, are now part of a burgeoning, grassroots soap-making industry. The emphasis today is on quality over quantity, with boutique operations dotted across the island.

With the olive oil and sodium hydroxide suitably blended, Manolis pours the mustard-yellow mixture into a glass container to solidify for 24 hours. Luckily for me, there's also a batch of soap from yesterday waiting to be cut and stamped.

"The first time we made soap it was just for our friends," explains Manolis, as he pulls out a hardened yellow block. "People loved them so much, we decided to go into full-time production. It feels good to reconnect with Cretan heritage."

These days, the Plevrakises' 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.

Using an ingenious device resembling a massive wire cheese slicer, I soon have an array of perfectly sized bars lined up. In a perfect division of labour, Manolis handles the stamping, imprinting each block of soapy Cretan goodness with the Athos logo.

"In the Cretan dialect, 'athos'means blossom," explains Manolis. "We wanted our business to symbolise new growth and natural purity. Plus the name is short enough to fit on each bar."


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