Angry gusts of frosty wind were spreading the fragrance of winter across the city when we arrived at Amy and Jim’s home. From the open door a hand reached across the threshold and, with a serene and welcoming smile, Amy invited us in and introduced us to her partner Jim. Fire burning in the stove, cat half asleep on the sofa, jars of sourdough starter on the kitchen counter and Amy’s herbal tea steaming in the cups, their home felt more like a warm and quiet countryside cottage than a citified living space. Sitting cosily by the wood stove, Amy and Jim opened up about how they met at University and how their journey into soap-making started as a sustainable entrepreneurial collaboration with Simone and Peter, Amy’s parents who are running the Anglo-Nubian goat HQ on their farm in East Sussex.
What we love about their approach to soap-making, apart from the superior quality and distinctively refreshing scents of their soaps, is the genuine celebration of responsibly and carefully sourced natural ingredients and the associated farming methods gone into producing every single one of them. Not only that, but they also design and print their own packaging on recycled papers using the family's vintage Heidelberg GTO printing press.
After finishing our tea, Amy and Jim invited us to see their soap-making studio, where they did some soap cutting and wrapping and showed us their new product: the sourdough soap, a collaboration with Vanessa Kimbell of The Sourdough School; they also introduced us to their ferret friends, showed us their work-in-progress campervan and Jim's workshop, where they apply the finishing touches on the handcrafted storm-felled soap decks and where Jim works on a multitude of DIY projects.
Returning to the warmth of their house, we sat down with Amy and Jim to enjoy a delicious slice of apple rye and cider cake made by Amy from Gill Meller’s cook book and engaged in a leisurely conversation about sourdough baking, mushroom hunting and dreams of beekeeping.
Tell us a little about yourselves before you started The Raw Soap Company.
We were studying and living on a cattle and arable farm in Hampshire. Footpaths lead from both the front and back door into fields, it was somewhere we really lived by the seasons.
What are your most vivid childhood memories?
Amy: Growing up with animals, and lots of them. Catching my first fish; a huge mackerel off the harbour wall in Newhaven.
How did you two meet?
When and how did the idea for The Raw Soap Company come about and what made it worth pursuing?
Amy’s parents (Simone and Peter) have a small-holding in East Sussex and started keeping goats in 2011. They started with two goats, Puck and Nancy and the herd grew but so did the amount of milk. We were drinking it raw and making soft cheeses but still had surplus. This inspired us to think about other uses for milk that was useful to us and we came across the benefits of goat milk soap. The idea immediately stuck and appealed to the scientists in us, whilst resulting in a sustainable product.
What is the philosophy behind your brand?
Responsible sourcing of our ingredients is central to our ethos. We strive to celebrate British farming and support other local small-scale producers and farmers. We believe in skin care which is simple, good enough to eat and of high-quality, which is accessible to everyone.
Tell us a little about Simone and Peter, the other two members of The Raw Soap Company. What are your strengths as a team?
Simone and Peter are Amy’s parents. They are integral to running goat HQ! We go back to the smallholding about once a month to help out with goat related matters and pick up more milk. After milking, Simone freezes the milk – we need it frozen for when we make soap as the reaction is exothermic. We all have our own roles in the team, and often we work together on smaller projects but each person’s responsibilities are well defined, and this works really well.
What are your thoughts on the mainstream beauty industry?
There is too much packaging, too much plastic and too many unknown ingredients. There isn’t enough emphasis on quality and provenance of ingredients, and often the consumer is left not knowing this at all. But consumers are becoming increasingly interested in product ingredients and their purpose. Consequently, the mainstream beauty industry is having to react, so we think it is improving but there are still a lot of questionable products out there.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Be sure to make time to do something you enjoy every day.
Treat others how you would like to be treated.
What are some of your favourite places to hang out in your area?
Jim: my workshop, where I like to work on my myriad of projects.
Amy: the garden, in the rain or sunshine, usually always with our cat (Kevin) and our three ferrets. Before we baked a lot of sourdough we used to always head to Mark’s Bread (one of our local bakeries) and enjoy choosing a loaf, they also used to do the BEST baked beans on toast.
When we hang out with each other, we head to Wales or the Quantocks for walks and mushroom hunting! With friends, you will always find us eating something delicious. We love to cook outside and it’s often a big goat curry on a fire shared with friends.
On Sundays you might catch us eating sourdough pizza at The Victoria Park pub. One of the best in Bristol (and there is a lot!).
What does a regular day look like for you?
It always starts with English Breakfast Tea. Amy’s gone mad on baking sourdough and we haven’t bought a loaf of bread for 8 months so she’ll always be baking that first thing. Then we’ll head out to our studio and decide on a soap to make. We get milk out of the freezer and while it thaws slightly we set up the equipment and start warming the oils. Usually we make soap together, or one person might do some wrapping. Soap making works well with two people because you can have some pretty heavy buckets at times, and you need to be careful when handling lye. We try to eat lunch outside, and might play with our ferrets. Then we’ll organise our orders, if we are lucky enough to have some, and head off to the post office. Our local post office is on East Street on Bristol – it’s such a lively street, with people from all walks of life, so it’s always a talking point of the day too, you bet there is something going on there.
What is the most frequent subject of your conversations?
Science, why our campervan isn’t finished, who has fed the animals, why isn’t the pizza oven finished and where are we going to get some logs from, oh and what are we eating next.
What advice do you have for those just getting into soap making?
Research the principles and the method well. We recommend starting in small batches, and ideally working with a partner. Ensure you always take appropriate safety precautions as lye (a strong alkali) is involved when crafting cold-process soap. Take time to source your ingredients well too.
What are you currently working on?
Shampoo bars and gift boxes.
What are your dreams and ambitions for the future of The Raw Soap Company?
We would like lots of people to enjoy our products, and use them in their everyday routines.
What about your personal dreams?
We would both love to have some woodland of our own, and start some innovative projects there. We’ve just got an allotment in Bristol so we hope to start keeping bees in the future.
And now a Max Frisch question: Are you convinced by your own self-criticism?
We are both highly critical people, having trained as a scientist and engineer. Plus, Amy’s a perfectionist, and we always find we are trying to put ourselves in the shoes of other people as test. It doesn’t always mean we are convinced though!
Can you recommend us:
A book: Amy: Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh / Jim: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
A song: Amy: Houses In Motion, Talking Heads / Jim: Female of the Species, Space; second song from Sénégal Fast Food ‒ Amadou et Mariam.
A film: Amy: Wayne's World / Jim: Mousehunt.
A dish: Amy: curried goat with perfect flat breads and in season pickled bits / Jim: rabbit tagine.
Thank you, both, for the lovely cake and stimulating conversation. We wish you all the best in your future endeavours!