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Q&A with Silvana de Soissons - Farm Soap Co.

Meet the Renaissance woman, super high achiever and long standing friend of the shop, Silvana de Soissons. From economics to cooking to blogging to soap and all the bits in between: read about her lovely life.

 

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Tell us a bit about your professional background. What did you do before Farm Soap Co.?

Just before creating Farm Soap Co. I was the Retail Manager at The Newt in Somerset, helping to set up their Farm Shop and House and Garden Shop. Before that I owned my own business, a shop and tearoom in the centre of Bath called The Foodie Bugle. I have always been in one form of retail or sales or marketing – I am Italian and to Italians the whole the whole food, drink and lifestyle industries are so very fascinating and basically I LOVE SHOPS! Hence my obsession with The Hambledon – what a temple of merchandising and beautiful displays.

We loved The Foodie Bugle, both the amazing website and lovely shop. Talk a bit about the contrasting challenges of having a blog and having a shop? We’re always nosy about other retailers’ experiences.

Nosy is always good! Curiosity and an interest in others is a positive business attribute. Well The Foodie Bugle started in 2011 as an online Blog all about artisan food, drink and crafts, and, out of the blue, it won The Guild Of Food Writers New Media Award in 2012, which raised a lot of awareness for it. The readers wanted a paper equivalent of the blog and at the time independent print media was flourishing, so we created two print editions. Then readers started asking for all the props and accessories photographed in the magazine, so we set up a pop-up shop and then the Bath shop followed thereafter. Setting up a shop and tearoom was an enormous undertaking – you need huge reserves of cash, nerves and courage to be a high street retailer. All of a sudden you find yourself having to juggle lots of different jobs: managing staff, suppliers, stock, finance, administration, marketing, social media etc etc The list is endless. But there is still a long line of retailers who run successful online shops, retail brick and mortar shops and have a big blog and online following simultaneously – the digital side and the high street side can work together. In fact now that the high street has been so decimated, it’s vital.

Silvana cooking
Amalfi lemons in the Foodie Bugle shop

Imagery from fabulousfabsters.com

The Foodie Bugle shop front
The Editor's welcome letter in the first Foodie Bugle magazine

You studied Economics at Bath University. What drew you to England to study? I can’t imagine it was a food enthusist’s Mecca at the time.

I came to England for the very first time in 1979 – The Winter of Discontent. It was a harsh time. Olive oil was sold in the chemist to treat ear ailments, pizza had pineapple on it, spaghetti came in a tin and Italian restaurants had those awful red and white checked tablecloths and straw flask bottles of wine dangling from the ceiling. I went to Bath on a shopping trip in 1984 (see, I was shopping again!) and I went to stay at the Laura Place Hotel which was a treat at the time, with my Mother. We visited the Royal Crescent, had lunch at The Hole in the Wall Restaurant, browsed through all the boutiques on Milsom Street and the rest is history. I decided I wanted to study there when I finished my A Levels and I thought Economics was the best subject to get into business. Also, my Economics teacher was fabulously glamorous – she wore Jigsaw dresses, shoes from Hobbs, jumpers from Benetton, diamante hair clips and Shalimar perfume. At the time I thought “I want to be an Economics teacher, just like her!” Little did I realise it was going to be three long, dry years of turgid mathematics, statistics, graphs and economic modelling. The only advantages of my degree are that 1. I can read a balance sheet and 2. I understand what the Chancellor of the Exchequer is saying.

Did you always intend to have your own business? And was your degree helpful?

Yes and no. It’s really hard working for other people and it’s even harder to work for yourself. All the creatives I know – from potters to gardeners, writers, artists and cooks – lurch from anxiety to awards, from stress to success. It’s a roller coaster ride, not for the timid but it enables you to furrow your own path, make your own choices and live out your own dreams rather than someone else’s. No, the subject matter of my degree was not really that helpful, but doing a degree was a great discipline: it teaches you to allocate your time wisely, focus, research everything, discuss and analyse, and all of those activities are useful in business.

Rolling fields in Dorset
The pebbled beaches in Dorset
The greenhouse used by Farm Soap Co.

The Farm Soap Co is based in Dorset. What drew you to the county? (I’m originally a Dorset girl and Lucy has a house in Lyme Regis so we can probably guess but others might like to know!)

Dorset is such a beautiful county, and I have always loved visiting it, especially the Jurassic Coast and Chesil Beach. I love the Bridport Saturday market – one of the best in the UK, with an abundant organic produce stall, Hay Penny Market Garden. The restaurants and shops there are worth a detour – Yellow Gorse, Eat Dorshi, Sunshine Café, Gelateria Beppino, Malabar Trading, Albion vintage shop…so many! There’s Brassica Restaurant and Mercantile in Beaminster, The Botanical Trading Company in Shaftesbury, The Hambledon Gallery in Blandford, The Seaside Boarding House in Burton Bradstock, Molesworth & Bird and The Alexandra Hotel in Lyme Regis… I could just go on and on. Ringstead Beach. Abbotsbury. Cerne Abbas. If you visit Britain from abroad you must visit Dorset – it’s like Tuscany, but better.

You’re a famous foodie, can you tell us a bit about food in Lombardy (where you grew up). We’re pining for foreign flavours at this home bound time.

Lombardy is an unknown foodie paradise really, and of the 20 provinces of Italy probably one of the least discovered gastronomically. To put that right I think everyone should read the books of my great friend, the food writer Anna del Conte who also lives in Dorset – her book The Classic Food of Northern Italy is my bible really. It helps foreigners understand that Italian food is not all tomato sauce, basil, pasta and tiramisu. There’s Bresaola from the Valtellina valley, Breme onions from Pavia, Ossobuco from Milan and Torrone di Cremona. Visitors always associate Italian cookery with the Mediterranean, but Lombard cookery is almost alpine or Tirolean. We originate from a Germanic-Scandinavian tribe, the long beards or Longobardi, and our food, particularly the patisserie side of our food, is quite Austrian. When I was growing up we travelled a lot through Africa because of my father’s job, but my mother still cooked breaded Milanese veal cutlets, cotolette, like Wiener schnitzel. We had risotto with vegetables (as we grow rice in Lombardi) and polenta with ragu (polenta is a special corn meal). Lombardy is the dairy farm of Italy, so we are very famous for milk, cream, yoghurt and cheeses, like mascarpone, taleggio, gorgonzola and dolcelatte. We drink really strong coffee and eat delicious pastries with it – the Viennoiserie tradition of brioches, croissants and jam tarts (crostata) is strong. At Christmas you will see Milanese panettone, sachertorte, strudel and Stollen.

Is the cooking element of making soap particularly pleasing for you?

The soap at Farm Soap Co. is cold process so no heat is used other than gently melting the solid ingredients, coconut oil and shea butter. The slow mixing and slow curation period makes the handmade soaps much creamier and gentle, full of glycerine. I love making soap – it is quite a complex and challenging craft and you are constantly learning and developing. It’s not that different from making cheese, sourdough or a fine wine – it’s all about time, passion and natural ingredients.

Soap Making equipment
Trays of soaps and citrus fruits
Finished soaps drying

How do you devise your soap recipes? Are you self taught? And how important are natural ingredients?

Before I started Farm Soap Co. I did a lot of different workshops and studied the subject in depth for over a year – through books, courses, videos and following the best soap makers in the world. In particular, Korea, Australia and the US have very strong heritage and traditional cold process methods in soap making. Natural ingredients are extremely important because I wanted to create products that are completely botanical, gentle and delicate, with absolutely no synthetic fragrances whatsoever. From farm to face, for all the family. So for the first fragrances I looked to the smells that imbued me with a sense of happiness, nature and calm – like lavender, geranium and all the citrus fruits. These are the scents of my childhood – old fashioned fragrances that are timeless and delicate. I grow botanicals in an organic walled garden at Deans Court in Wimborne and from those we will be making essential oils and hydrosols for other skincare products.

Flowering fields
Herbs growing to be used for soap making
The Farm Soap Co.'s walled garden

We love the packaging. How did you decide on your branding?

I do love a very simple, clean aesthetic, pure and uncluttered. My favourite colours are white and navy and I love a grid. In Somerset I met a husband and wife graphic designer couple called Lucy and Robert Carter from Bruton and they designed a lot of the branding, signage and maps for museums, visitor attractions, hotels, spas, etc. I went to them with an initial idea drawn out on sketch paper and they were incredibly supportive and kind. When I came back a week later they had transformed my thoughts into the designs you see today.

Garden plit planning designs
A bowlful of finished Farm Soap Co soaps in their packaging
Soap packaging in action

Can you tell us about a typical working day?

Well, we have an aged Fox Terrier dog called Gumdrop, and there are no lie ins in the house. He starts howling at around 6am and either me or my husband John-Paul have to get up to take him out. We have a quick coffee and breakfast then we get straight into the workshop to start the daily schedule. John-Paul manages all the finances, tax, contracts, supplier invoices etc and he also helps me do the packaging, the unmoulding and the heavy lifting. I print out the online retail and wholesale orders of the day and we dispatch them first as the courier comes to pick them up and we need to take boxes to the Post Office. Then I start making more soaps – I try to make around 12 kilos of soap per day. I am also formulating a botanical facial oil which will be launched at the end of the summer, when the flower harvest has been picked and dried. The day is taken up completely by soap making, washing up and cleaning the workshop, ordering more supplies, answering emails, social media and researching new products, fragrances and ingredients. Once a week we work in our herb garden at Deans Court and as the season progresses that might be twice a week.

Hand washing using Farm Soap Co. soap
A large tray of newly made Farm Soap Co Geranium soaps

Who or what can’t you live without?

So many things! In no particular order: my daughter Mariella, my husband John-Paul, my dog Gumdrop, Sicilian tomatoes, Icelandic yoghurt, Dorset apple juice, Indian tea, Italian coffee, Spanish tortas de aceite, and Irish linen.

What’s a guilty pleasure at Farm Soap HQ? Is it all fresh rosemary and lavender? Or is there time for the occasional chocolate Hobnob?

Guilty as charged your Honour – it’s chocolate Hobnobs, custard creams and jammy dodgers ahoy! And a cheeky cold rose wine at the end of the shift. Salute!

Shop our full selection of Farm Soap Co. soaps via the link below.

 

 

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