Profile: Hans & Daida de Roos

March 2006

The fragrant aroma of rosemary and lavender filled the air as I unwrapped a small treasure, which has just arrived from Spain. It was a bar of olive oil soap made by the hands of Hans and Daida de Roos following a medieval recipe. They prepared it within the walls of their finca, whose foundations were laid in 1034. 

What makes the soap even more remarkable is that it is made exclusively of 100% extra virgin olive oil from Hans and Daida's own grove of arbequina olive trees. Soap of this quality, made of olive oil rather than tallow, is what made 'Castile' soap the gold standard in Europe for centuries. Today most olive oil soap contains only a fraction of olive oil and then most likely of 'lampante' quality, which has been discarded for human consumption. 

Hans and Daida are a fascinating and generous couple. I was introduced to them by a La Tienda patron who told me of their exquisite Arbequina olive oil made in a medieval finca north of Barcelona. That certainly piqued my imagination, and, since my wife Ruth and I were headed for the Alimentaria -- the historic Spanish Food Fair in Barcelona, and I sent Hans and Daida an e-mail to see if we could meet.

They responded by inviting Ruth and me to be their houseguests, sight unseen! Hans dropped by our hotel on the last day of the Alimentaria and drove us north along the Costa Brava to their home near La Bisbal. As Hans ushered us into their home, Can Solivera, we were met with a big smile by his wife Daida. She had recently come in from the olive groves, which she had been tending with some of the local people from the village.

Who was this generous and expansive couple, and what was their Spanish connection? Over the first couple of days, and now a couple of years Ruth and I have gotten to know them quite well. They have visited us in Virginia, and we have traveled together, visiting Sos del Rey and San Juan de la Peña in the Pyrenees. They have become a significant part of our lives.

Daida's grandfather, Paco Minguell, came from a small village close to Arbeca, the origin of the Arbequina olive tree. During the roaring twenties he opened the first and only shipyard in Barcelona where, as a shipwright, he built sailing ships out of wood also equipped with a small steam engine. In association with his ship-building, Paco also operated a sawmill but found that the best ash wood necessary for strong masts was in scarce supply. It seems that most of the ash trees in Spain were felled to build the ships of the Spanish Armada back in the 15th Century. (Isn't it amazing how one act can have such an impact on our environment?) 

Undaunted, Daida's grandfather went to Finland - a land of mighty forests. There, in addition to finding beautiful ash trees, he fell in love with a beautiful blonde. It was love at first sight and soon they were married. The newlyweds returned to Spain to live.

But during the most violent days of the Civil War, Daida's grandparents sought refuge in the Netherlands. While they were still living in Spain their daughter (Daida's mother), met a young Dutch doctor who was touring Spain on a bicycle tour. Soon they married and moved to a small village near Rotterdam. Daida's mother and her father's mother were in the same village and became good friends.

Hans, as you can gather by his name, is pure Dutch - every bone in his body. His father was the pastor of the church in Delftshaven, Holland. This was the same church where the Pilgrims sought refuge from English persecution. As a part of this congregation they made their plans to ultimately sail to America where they founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony near Plymouth Rock. 

Hans, the bright and industrious pastor's son, earned a full scholarship to Nijenrode - the finest business school in the Netherlands. There he met and married Daida, who became a close companion through all of his adventures. The couple lived in various parts of South America for 20 years, where Hans fashioned a very successful career in chemical distribution through the sea-lanes. 

Upon advancement within the company Hans was called back to Europe. In 1975, while they were stationed in Madrid, Francisco Franco died. Across the nation there was great anxiety as to the country's political fate. Hans and Daida had great faith in the Spanish people and invested in the emerging Spain. They bought this property in Cataluña, Daida's ancestral home.

I sensed that their home, Can Solivera, had been preserved with the same loving attention that Hans and Daida invest in all that they do. It was a labor of love. When they bought the building with the intent of restoring it, they found that upon the original foundations had been built many additions - most of them were in 1068, the latest being in 1624. They set about to retain as much of the flavor of the building as they could. 

They retained the original kitchen with a walk-in fireplace and a bread oven imbedded in the wall. They preserved the 12th C wine kitchen, which had a modified funnel for a floor so that during harvest a huge number of grapes would be stowed there. The juice dripping through a hole in the sloping floor used to be gathered in casks in order to ferment into wine.

Hans and Daida's greatest love is olive oil from Spain. When they settled into their new estate, Can Solivera, they planted a grove of arbequina olive trees and personally nurtured their growth. Through their own toil and the blessing of a favorable micro-climate, they produce a sublime extra virgin olive oil, and in addition, an organic wild olive oil produced using the medieval style of pressing the olives. They bring home the fruit of their labor and actually put it into individual bottles.

In the process of conducting research in the area of olive culture (Hans is a very thorough man) he came upon a medieval recipe for making soap in the olive oil museum of Baena near Córdoba. He and Daida wanted to see if it was possible to replicate this pure, healthy product, and turned a part of their home into a laboratory of sorts. 

The result is what I hold in my hands - a pure extra virgin Arbequina olive oil soap, combined with the essence of rosemary and other herbs that are native to their property. To this day they make their soap, cutting it and wrapping each bar by hand. We were among the first to enjoy it - now there are a couple of shops in Holland, U.K. and Ireland that carry it! We have brought some over to America to see if our friends at La Tienda will enjoy it too!

What a fascinating story involving medieval Spain, Cataluña, the forests of Finland, the ports of Holland, South America and even Plymouth Rock! It all traces back to Spain and the ingenuity of a warm and generous couple who love working in her soil.

My best wishes to you and those you love,