In the stunning town of Corfu, history is evident and obvious all around and it’s exactly this element that charms and attracts visitors from all over the world. Its cultural heritage, its architectural wealth, its numerous museums and sights as well as its various traditions, mark its uniqueness. And moreover, among the well-known and recognizable monuments, there are so many other special features that intensify the sense of the historic continuance that characterizes this much loved island.
A special case among them is that of a family run business with a 150 years old history and 130 years presence in Corfu, which proudly and justifiably has been characterized a Monument of Industrial Heritage by the Greek Ministry of Culture. Patounis Soap Manufacturer, the oldest of its kind still operating in Greece, with passion and devotion to tradition, carries on its unique story that started back in 1850.
It’s there, back in the past, where we’re being transferred by the narration of Mr Apostolos Patounis, who represents the fifth generation of the family and who gladly shares the secrets of producing excellent, pure soaps. All types of them are handmade, using 100% Corfiot olive oil, with beneficial cosmetic properties and these days are being exported all over the world.
And surely, the history of the Patounis and Bazakis families that originally started their business in Zakynthos island, is not much different to the fairy tales that grandpa Apostolos Patounis was narrating to his grandson, who now runs the business, when the young boy was visiting the small industry and helped in etching and stamping in order to earn his pocket money. It’s so lovely listening to the nostalgic and lively storytelling and at the same time see the same equipment, like the cutter and the big stamper, still in use today, which you can touch, as Mr Patounis prompts you to measure, engrave and stamp.
There is an intense sense of historic continuance of a business that started in a completely different context and evolved in an unexpected way. Indeed, the original commercial pursuit had nothing to do with today’s business, as the two families were trading wool capes for Napoleon III’s army. The revenues were the means to buy soap from Marseille, which was then traded back in Greece. It didn’t take long to acquire the skills of making their own pure soap and finally, in 1850 in Zakynthos island, they started the – first operating in Greece – soap manufacturer. The success came quickly and so, in 1891 they took a step further by opening a branch in Corfu, which since 1930 belongs entirely to the Patounis family, housed in a building on the busy, commercial Ioan. Theotokis street, which has also been characterized a preserved, industrial building.
It’s there, where the daily, free guided tours take place and while toy hear about the secrets and benefits of pure, olive oil soap, experienced craftsmen in the background preform their traditional techniques: some prepare the ingredients for the cauldrons, some pour the mixture into large frames and others weight the dried soaps one by one. All of the production stages are operated manually, without any mechanical interference. The first stage involves the mixing of oil and caustic soda, then after 10 days when the mixture is ready, it’s being transferred by huge ladles into big frames in order to settle and stabilize and finally comes the measuring, the stamping and the cutting, at which you will be asked to participate and show your skills. As for the hundreds of wooden – loaded with soaps -pallets that surround you, they are actually the natural drying space, where soaps will be left for 4 months in order to become “mature”. Because, as Mr Patounis explains “the older a soap gets, the better it becomes”.
What is certain is that both the fragrance of the soaps around you as well the whole atmosphere, will transfer you to past times, when cleaning products were original and pure, without harmful chemicals. It’s totally understandable that especially at our times, when the need to protect the planet by using eco and also skin friendly products is undeniable, pure, handmade, olive oil soap is a product whose timeless value gets a special meaning.