Soap is the name of the game for these enterprising souls
Twin sisters Christine Bothma and Alida Taljaard are making the most of their late mother’s recipe for old-fashioned boerseep: every week they each make 400 to 600 bars of soap and several bags of grated Ouma Hanna se Boerseep that are duly snapped up at farm stalls, gift shops and markets countrywide.
“Now, you listen closely to what this aunty has to tell you today: there’s not a damn chance that any flea will jump on a dog that’s been washed with boerseep,” says Alida Taljaard, her right forefinger tapping out “not a damn” on the block of soap lying on the kitchen table. “Bu-u-u-u-ut – and there’s the rub – you actually shouldn’t wash a dog, or a blanket, for that matter, with boerseep, because it foams so much that it’s difficult to rinse out.”
Christine, the “eight minutes older, more restrained sister” from Kuils River who’s visiting Bonnievale for the day, nods. “Boerseep is a wonderful old-fashioned product: gentle on the skin, biodegradable, eco-friendly,
multipurpose, concentrated and therefore very economical… That’s really all we have in the house, as shampoo and to wash laundry, floors, dishes, dirty bath mats… my husband even shaves with it,” she says.
“And it’s a fabulous stain remover!” shouts Alida, eyes and mouth open wide, as if she’s starring in a commercial for washing powder. “Nothing – nothing – dispenses with a stubborn stain or smell the way this does… Especially stress sweat, which has quite a nasty smell to it – boerseep will do the trick.”
SOAP-MAKING is as old as the hills; the first evidence of man-made soaplike substances dates back to about 2800 BC. Once upon a time, every second household cooked its own soap from available ingredients.
Old-fashioned boerseep is made from rendered beef or mutton suet (the hard “intestinal fat” around the stomach and kidneys rather than the “carcass fat” used in sausage) and lye water (rainwater in which the ash from burnt shrubs such as lyebush and spekbos was leached, but since then the ash has been replaced with caustic soda).
The tale of Ouma Hanna se Boerseep began on the Louws’ family farm Elandsoog in the Middelpos district in the Karoo, where Alida and Christine’s grandmother Duifie cooked soap the old-fashioned way. Duifie, in turn, taught her daughter Johanna (the twins’ late mother, Ouma Hanna) the art. Soon, however, Johanna switched to cold-water boerseep, which she made in a tin bath. This soap doesn’t get cooked. Instead, the fat (which is acidic) is stirred with water in which caustic soda flakes (alkaline) are dissolved until the mixture saponifies (turns into soap).
In October 2007, Alida took over the making of the soap from her mother. At first she handed out these white “miracle bars” to family and friends, but eventually she decided to start a small business. She registererd the domain name “boerseep” and started marketing Ouma Hanna se Boerseep.
In August 2009, Christine, a trained oral hygienist who had great success as an entrepreneur selling tombstones (“my all-time bestseller”) and the controversial APS Therapy pain-relief machine, decided to follow in her sister’s footsteps.
Today, they both use their mother’s recipe and the same name, but each manages her own business with her own customers. Christine’s packaging is in English and she focuses on
“Our is part of the huge boom in all kinds of forgotten art forms and pioneer industries.”
fairs, markets and festivals, whereas mail orders constitute about 90% of Alida’s business.
“Our boerseep is part of the huge boom in all kinds of forgotten art forms and pioneer industries,” says Christine.
“People are growing vegetables and fruit again, they’re knitting and crocheting, baking bread, making their own beer, roasting their own coffee beans… My husband and I are members of the Veteran Tractors Club, and I see the type of people who take their children there: people with “computer kids”, people who long for the less hectic life they knew long >
ago and that only exists in isolated pockets these days.
“There’s an element of nostalgia – they want to show their children how they grew up; this is how a tractor works; this is how you milk a cow – but there is also a desire to live greener or healthier lives. Boerseep – any soap, in fact, that is made from pure, natural ingredients – is better for your skin than any commercial soap, and in an era where everything is fast-paced and ever easier, it’s great to make something that is just as labour-intensive, messy and slow as it was when our grandmothers toiled over the cauldron. There aren’t any short cuts to take.”
Stir, and stir some more
In the backyard we meet Jan Baardman, who’s originally from Leeu-Gamka but has lived in Bonnievale for 20 years. Jan operates the meat grinder in which bucketloads of white fat are ground before it’s rendered in gigantic pots on a gas stove.
As we get closer, a bird flies out of a basket leaning against the wall.
“Look at the spekvretertjie [familiar chat],” says Alida. “They love the bits of fat.” In the nest, the chicks complain as if they haven’t been fed for three days.
Alida explains how the caustic soda is dissolved in rainwater collected in a tank. Because this process produces heat and toxic fumes, they work with masks. The lye water is allowed to cool overnight before it is added to the melted fat the following day. The mixture is then stirred until the first third of the saponification process has taken place.
After stirring for two to three hours (now done mechanically, at least), the soap is poured into moulds lined with greaseproof paper. It sets under a cloth for four to five hours before being cut into bars. “The Lord must have known someday I’d be cutting soap,” says Alida, “so He gave me strong arms.”
The soap bars are then covered with blankets and left in the sun for roughly two weeks to slowly saponify further. Then Regina Pieterse packages the soap bars, which are left for another two to three weeks until the pH is low enough for them to be used.
THE TWIN SISTERS both married diesel mechanics and both have two children, and although they both make boerseep, they’re as different as chalk and cheese.
“I’m the wild one and Christine is the quiet one,” Alida laughs. “We grew up in a home where you worked with everything produced on the farm, such as fresh vegetables, canned and dried fruit, eggs and boerseep. But our father always said Alida was the true farmer’s wife who could and wanted to do it all: bake, knit, crochet, cook jam, preserve fruit, sew, play the accordion… and she’s good with people. I am the businesswoman, the in-the-box person and the one who is better at one-onone interaction. I like the business side of things.”
Christine and her husband ran their own mechanical workshop in Kuils River from 2004 to February 2014. “During the day I worked with him and in the evenings he worked with me, but since March 2014 we’ve been making soap full time.”
When we say goodbye, we spot the sign on Alida’s gate: “Beware of the dog’s owner.” Not at all. Only a stubborn stain and a flea need be afraid.
boerseep.co.za (where you’ll find a list of stockists and their contact details)
Christine 084 548 7913 email@example.com
Alida 082 264 3057 firstname.lastname@example.org >
Alida Taljaard (left) from Bonnievale and her twin sister Christine Bothma from Kuils River make every bar of Ouma Hanna se Boerseep by hand. Here, they stand behind the display
racks they use at markets.
ABOVE The old tin bath in which her mother used to make boerseep hangs on the wall of the room where Alida makes soap. INSET The late Johanna Louw, whose face features on the packaging of Ouma Hanna se Boerseep, stirring soap in the tin bath.
A familiar chat has made its nest close to a rich food source: in Alida’s yard where the fat is ground for making soap.
RIGHT On this shelf in her study Alida keeps boerseep – her own, her competitors’, imported soap, soap that’s more than 80 years old…
BEHIND THE (SOAP) SCENES