Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Front Page News

How funny! My plum tree is the top story of the Seattle Times today. Plum crazy - the story takes up about half of the whole front page.

I had no idea it would be such a big deal - maybe a little thing in the local section, or the life section on a Saturday. But it's great publicity for CityFruit.org, who I've mentioned here before. They are a bit overwhelmed with the the harvesting right now, because everything gets ripe at the same time. So spreading out the volunteers and pickers, delivering the fruit to all the various food banks and organizations must be a gigantic amount of work. Good for them. I hope this helps them out in some way.

This little ol' plum tree might be famous, but it's still a headache. Even though we've gotten a couple hundred pounds of fruit off of it at least, it's still loaded at the top with stuff we can't reach. And it's over-ripe now, and dropping bombs all over the sidewalk, the yard and our heads. It's getting trimmed back for next year, so I don't have to use so many poles to keep the branches off my electric wires and internet cable.

So today's story is plums. I really didn't know how many people still read the paper - we've gotten so many calls and emails this morning. A couple of cooking tips - if you're doing any cooking with them, they get brown fast. Toss them in a little lemon juice immediately. I made a delicious salad last night with slices of plums, halved cherry tomatoes (which I also have a LOT of right now), a bit of feta cheese, and a handful of mint leaves chopped. Since there was already a bunch of lemon juice on the plums, for dressing I added a teaspoon of honey, a splash of white wine vinegar and a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper. Super juicy and the peak of tastiness.

Oven drying was not the best. There's a Martha Stewart recipe (and variations) all over the internet which worked out well. I substituted a spice blend with a little star anise and cinnamon for the thyme leaves. You cook them on low for 3 hours and then turn off the oven overnight. They are totally juicy and not at all dried the next day. Tasted great though, and I froze them. The second time I tried this I decided to cook them all night (at 200) like I've done for oven dried tomatoes, which come out exactly like sun-dried. That is to say, actually dry. I was aiming for more of a prune or dried fruit like thing. But they were still a bit wetter the next morning, and had a terribly bitter taste. Totally inedible. I'm sure a food dehydrator would work, but I don't have one of those.

So mostly I've cooked sauces and frozen them. Some sweet, some savory for pork and chicken later. This year I did not can them into jam. I don't like it as well - my plums just get this weird gold/brown color and it doesn't make a pretty jam. Right now I'm so sick of them, I don't want to do anything else with them. They are best just fresh off the tree, but you can only do that for so long and then you want a dang banana or an orange. Anything but another plum.

Did I mention that I fell off the ladder? Right in front of the reporter while he was taking notes for the story? No? Probably because that's the most embarrassing thing ever. Yes there was a 911 call. And a fire truck raced over with sirens blaring. Super cute guys - one named "Almond" and one named "Berry." I kid you not. We could have made a great dessert together, but they had to go back to work. I am fine. A couple of bruises, nothing major. Not even a stiff neck, no broken bones, no major head injury or body cast. I guess I got very lucky. Just a little overzealous with getting that next branch and the ladder started to tip on the un-even hill. Dumb. I know. I'm still cringeing with how stupid the whole thing was. And now there's a front page news story to remind of that happy day. With photos of my chin in color and large pixels taking up half the front section. Hoo boy.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Random Bits

Somehow life got too busy for the blog. Almost a week after I finished the Anacortes show, I'm finally able to breathe again. In a few small spots I can even see the surface of my desk.

So here's what's new. Anacortes turned out to be a fairly good show. Even though I lost my corner space at the last minute and had an invisible spot in front of an empty bakery storefront, facing the giant double Costco-sized booth of some other guy's soap (argh!), I did ok. Pretty much the same as the last couple of years, so that's a ginormous achievement given the way all my other summer sales went.

Now it's on to fall. The fall newsletter, the fall soap production, the fall updates on the web site. All things fall. It even feels like fall. The chilly days of grey and rain, the leaves dropping everywhere, the summer plants that have all yellowed out and turned to crisp. I know we've got sunshine and summer for a few more weeks, starting tomorrow I guess. But right now, it's back to sweatshirts and pumpkin spice smells.

Soaps gone bad: I think I've found the problem that has been shortening the shelf-life of my soaps the past few months. Earlier this year I had changed the brand of one of my base oils. Turns out it was a slight variation of what I had been using in the past, and when I calculated out the recipe, it was not quite right. I've changed back to the old brand and there should be no more problems with the soaps I am making now. Tried to cut costs a little and it didn't work out - it backfired. I'm so frustrated.

The bottom line is this: any soaps that you may have gotten from me during the last 5 months or so do not have the same shelf life of the soaps you've grown accustomed to. If you haven't used them already, get them out pretty quickly. Some are fine, some are turning a little slimy or getting tiny orange spots. If it's already turned, do not panic. The soap itself is still good and usable, although not as attractive. But if you'd like to exchange it for a new bar, please feel free to call, email or contact me and I'll cheerfully replace it. If it's a seasonal one that is out of stock, then we'll do something else you like. But it's important to me that you don't just get disgusted and stop ordering - it was a temporary mistake that I've fixed and will not happen in the future. Anything not quite right up to this point, I'll replace at no charge.

I'll have to do a little blurb about all this in the fall mailing, but if you've been reading along here, I'm posting it early so that you can check your bars and use them up now instead of putting them in deep storage for winter or later. They won't last much longer. And again, if they're gone - I'll replace the bad ones.

Canning: hoo boy is it canning season. The tomatoes are constant, so we've tried oven drying. That doesn't work so good for cherry tomatoes. We made sauce and froze it. We've pickled. Bread and butter pickles with cukes this time. Twice. I've done strawberry and raspberry jam. And the plum tree just turned. Solid Ground/City Fruit are going to harvest over the weekend, to bring the hundred of pounds of plums to local food banks - plus a school organization that is going to dry them for lunch programs and snacks. BTW, if you've got a fruit tree in your yard that you'd like to have harvested and donated, go to CityFruit.org and get on the list. Even if it's for next year. They are a new group and just starting lists so that next year they can coordinate neighborhoods and harvest times better. Super great people.

NW Art Alliance (Best of the Northwest shows) finally hired a new executive director. Pamela Rembold, who was the interim director during the summer, is the new head honcho. She's wonderful, and very committed to building the organization, with a new focus on marketing our shows. Everyone else on staff previously has left. So it's all new, quite hopeful and freshly invigorated. We are still doing the fall show at Seattle Center - probably spread out between the Exhibition Hall and the Northwest Rooms like last year, which wasn't ideal but already committed to for this year. Except this time we might actually have some advertising.

The Puyallup Fair is right around the corner too - starts Sept.11. So I'm getting busy on plans for that too. I want to bring some lip balms again, but in a different kind of combo package. New styles of baskets for gift sets. Maybe a few different salts or spray flavors just for the fair. The past few years have given me a good idea of what that bunch of folks likes - and high on the list is vanilla and patchouli. So I want to make sure I've that all that and more. And the fishermen want the anise soap. Check.

I'm done with summer shows and summer stuff. I'm moving on to fall. Hoping to finally get around to doing another round of clearance stuff on the sale section and send something to the email list, which hasn't happened in months either.

And lastly: Bill Morris, the elegant, gentleman, calm in a sea of chaos - it was such a pleasure to work along side you for so many years. You'll be deeply missed. RIP.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Anacortes Arts Festival

This weekend is the Anacortes Arts Festival. The fifth show in five weeks. And the last one of the summer for me. So if you've put off stopping by to stock up - this is your last chance. Final call before fall comes around, which (gasp!) is right around the bend. But don't say that too loud.

Next week is going to feel so good. When I unload the car, I get to to actually put stuff away for a bit. And not spend the entire week getting ready for another show. The canopy is pooped, and I am too.

But Anacortes is my biggest show of the summer and I'm looking forward to ending the season with a humdinger. If you haven't been before, or haven't been in awhile, it's worth driving over and checking out. So many blocks after blocks of local artists and the best of the handmade stuff in our region. All kinds of stuff going on - a juried fine art exhibition, over 250 juried booth artisans, two music stages, international food court and beer garden, a hands-on youth area, fiber show at the Depot, working artist area, poetry reading at the port and more.

Anacortes Arts Festival

This is one of the largest and most popular art fairs in the entire Pacific Northwest, with

Dates: August 7, 8 AND 9
Times: Friday and Saturday 10am-6pm, Sunday 10am-5pm
Location: Downtown Anacortes, on Commercial Ave between the port and 10th
Soapworks Studio booth location: same location as last year, directly in front of the empty space that used to be La Vie en Rose Bakery, near the corner of 5th street, on the West side. Booth # 419W. So sad - the bakery is gone this year.

Looking forward to seeing all my Anacortes friends!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Week in Review


Coupeville was lousy this year. It's never a big show for me anyway, but it's such a pleasant town, and I have regulars on the island. I've skipped a couple years in the last four years there - just to save expenses. It's an overnight stay, plus ferry, plus gas and meals. And being just the weekend after Anacortes, I figure most people have already just seen me in that little neck of the woods. But Anacortes and Coupeville switched weekends this year, so I thought I'd give it another whirl and see how things went. Why not?

Turned out to be my worst show there ever. My profit was next to nothing. Again. Worst summer ever. I'm in a bit of shock, frankly. To be just about at the end of my summer show blitz, and have so little money after all that work is hard to take in.

This coming weekend is Anacortes, and it's always my biggest show of the entire season, so I'm going to try to end it with a bang. Fingers crossed. And toes. And eyes.

Another little issue. In all this heat wave, I've had a few batches of soap start to turn bad. I've never had soap go bad in the past. Even after a couple of years of sitting around. These are ones that I made in the early spring, or even later. It's a big surprise and I'm not sure what is causing it. The new recipe of shea butter and hemp oil? That seems the obvious first choice, but I've used this recipe for a year and a half now, and they've not done this yet. It would take a lot more time of experimenting to pin that down - and waiting around for another six months to see what works and what doesn't. Obviously the heat and sunlight don't help, and we are at the end of that now with the fall just around the corner.

What this means is . . . well I don't know. I have to make some changes to the process, the recipe, the way I store them, what I keep on hand and for how long. All of it. I'm starting to adjust the recipe a little this month and will watch to see how it all goes, but I won't have answers until next spring. I am also temporarily not making a few scents of soap that don't sell as well, but that I keep on hand for a small loyal following. That's the Sacred Smoke soap and the Anise soap. I've got to have a new batch of Anise for Puyallup in September, but after that, I won't make more batches for a bit until I've figured it all out. The Smoke soap is done for now. The batch I had in inventory, which I made in the spring is starting to ooze little brown goo, which means that one of the oils has gone bad. I have to toss the whole thing.

While I'm in this business slump, I can't afford to have money tied up in inventory that doesn't move, and ends up going to waste. I can only keep going on the most popular scents. As I plan the new fall scents, I have to be ruthless with what I'm going to spend supply money on. If I end up disappointing a few people by not having something in stock, I truly apologize. This is temporary, I hope.

I just don't know any answers at the moment. I'm sort of reeling and overwhelmed by all of it. I'm not sure what to do. I'm still going to do all my fall and winter shows, and both the fall and winter newsletters with full seasonal products. The next four months is when I do probably half of my sales for the year and I have to make a go of it.

That's the ugly truth from here. I can't vouch for any other artist, any other soap seller, or the world at large. Maybe it's just me, but I suspect that most other people are having a tough time too overall, even if sales are up or down at specific shows. Gosh, I'd hate to lose this whole thing now - after 13 years. I don't have a Plan B.