Beldi Soap aka Moroccan Black Soap aka Savon Noir – the full cross-cultural experience

Beldi Soap aka Moroccan Black Soap aka Savon Noir – the full cross-cultural experience

posted in: Auntie Clara's Blog, Blog Post | 50

Only a few months ago I had never heard of Beldi Soap or Moroccan Black Soap or Savon Noir. The topic came up in a discussion about natural exfoliants when somebody mentioned a Moroccan gel-style soap made not only with olive oil but with actual olives, too.

Having suddenly been made aware of this special kind of soap I needed to read up on it. The term beldi (which is also used in the context of eg food and rugs) is derived from the word ’bled’ which means country, territory, land or countryside. Ie ’beldi’ is something rustic, representative of the region, genuine and authentic: ’the real deal’, as it were. A case of happy assimilation it seems, since Beldi soap is said to have originated in the Levant many centuries ago and travelled from there to Morocco where it’s now a local speciality.

Beldi soap is made from olive oil. The oil is saponified with potassium hydroxide and this gives the soap its gel-like consistency. In Swedish we have two words for soap: the modern word tvål which means ordinary, hard bar soap saponified with sodium hydroxide, and the rather archaic-sounding såpa which means a gel-like soap paste saponified with potassium hydroxide or lye made from ashes. Beldi soap is ’såpa’ made from olive oil. Olive pulp is also part of genuine Beldi soap and several on-line suppliers of Beldi soap also mention ground eucalyptus leaves as an exfoliating additive. Eucalyptus leaves sounds nice but since eucalyptus isn’t indigenous to Morocco I assume it’s a modern-day variation.

Beldi soap is made specially to be used in traditional bath establishments known as hammams. These are often referred to as Turkish baths or Turkish steam rooms in English. Note, however, that Beldi soap is very specifically Moroccan and not well-established in the hammams of Turkey. Regular visits to the hammam is an important part of life in Morocco and Beldi soap is an important part of the hammam bathing ritual. A Moroccan steam bath consists of several consecutive steam rooms, each slightly warmer than the previous one. The bather gradually moves from the coolest to the hottest room and once the skin has broken a good sweat and the pores have opened, Beldi soap is applied all over the damp skin (avoiding the area around the eyes). The soap – which works as a cleansing masque –  is left to work on the skin for three to ten minutes and is then rinsed off while the skin is vigorously scrubbed all over with a kessa, a wash mitt made from coarse fabric. Sometimes the scrubbing is done by a professional scrubber known as the kessel . The skin is exfoliated and left feeling invigorated and super smooth.

This sounded wonderful to me and having found out all of this I was even more puzzled that I had never heard of Beldi soap before. I grew up in Finland, original home of the sauna (the word is Finnish, meaning ‘bath house’), where every household has a sauna and sauna culture is an intrinsic part of life everywhere in society. While there are differences between hammams and saunas the general principle is exactly the same: you let the skin sweat and the pores open in an abundance of heat and steam and then you scrub off the dead skin cells and emerge invigorated, detoxed, glowing and cleansed – body and soul.

So why has Beldi soap not made its way to the Land of a million saunas? That remains a mystery.  One reason could be that since olives don’t grow in the Nordic countries, olive oil has traditionally been a very expensive imported luxury product only just affordable in small quantities for salads, but definitely out of range for crude soap. Yet, things have changed a lot in the last few decades. The real value of luxury imports has decreased drastically, Finns apply themselves with great determination and stamina to international recreational travel and the world has become much smaller in general. Still, Beldi soap is largely unknown in Finland.

Well, I clearly had to give the 100% olive oil Beldi soap a go and it so happened that I was in a good position to do so. Here in the Western Cape of South Africa the climate is Mediterranean and well-suited for olive farming. Our region produces some of the finest olive oil in the world and having easy access to this super raw material is a great privilege for the soapmaker. Also, it happened to be harvest time and the olive trees in the orchards were heavy with beautiful, ripe black olives. Black olive pulp is what gives authentic Beldi soap its beautiful amber colour. Typically olives cured in brine are used but since I had access to fresh olives I decided to go with fresh. Uncured, unfermented olives are packed with vitamin e and all sorts of healthy stuff. It’s uncertain how much of all that goodness survives the high ph environment of saponifying soap, but the idea of fresh is nice.

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In Morocco the most common olive varietal by far is the Baldi Picholine which are harvested green for table olives and black for olive oil. Couldn’t get hold of Picholine olives here so I substituted with uncured local Mission olives.

The first step was to get the pips out of the olives. My kitchen is rather well equipped with all manners of gadgets and in the far corner of a drawer I knew had an olive de-pipper that I had never used. This part of the process turned out to be a complete non-event: it was easy as pie to make pitted olives. The weight of my pitted olives was about a quarter of the weight of the olive oil in the formula.

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Then, I pureed the olives into pulp. The deep red of the pulp was exquisite. When you cure olives in brine a lot of this pretty colour ends up in the discarded brine. Here it was all left in the pulp which I used as part of the liquid in my formula. Since I knew that the soap was meant to be left on the skin for a while I decided to proceed with caution and allow for a 10% superfat. Saponified olive oil is some of the mildest soap you get and normally doesn’t need a high superfat but I wanted to rather be safe than sorry for this first experiment. Of course, my olive pulp was also about 10% oil in addition to the superfat.

Now to the interesting saponification part. Prior to this I had never saponified soap with potassium hydroxide on its own. Shaving soap is often saponified with a combination of sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide but due to the high stearic content it tends to emulsify and firm up very quickly. Here I added the potassium hydroxide solution to the oil and pulp and blended. And blended. And blended.. And nothing happened. After 45 minutes of blending and stirring the mixture in my slow cooker I still didn’t have emulsion. Very disappointed, defeated and quite frankly rather peeved (familiar sentiments to most soapmakers, no doubt) I walked out on the slow cooker and the Beldi disaster and cursed myself for having used what must obviously have been expired and impotent potassium hydroxide: “Idiot!”

About 30 minutes later I went back to turn off the slow cooker when lo and behold, there were some promising looking clumps on the bottom of the pot! Another good stir and I had beautiful pudding! About an hour later the paste in the pot looked exactly like the pictures of Beldi soap I had seen: a very glossy, deep amber-coloured gel that could be piled up high while still very soft to the touch. Funny how that saved itself!

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The smell from the pot was delicious. The way the paste looked and smelled it almost made you want to spread it on fresh, crusty bread. I tasted the paste at the end of the cook and while it didn’t produce any zap, it was extremely bitter due to the retained phenolic oleuropein from the uncured olives. This was definitely not the soap you want to have your mouth washed out with! 🙂

Not wanting to overpower but rather complement the natural smell of the soap I added a small amount of eucalyptus oil and packed the soap in jars.

Beldi Soap aka Moroccan Black Soap aka Savon Noir by Auntie Clara's Handcrafted Cosmetics

I initially tested the feel of the soap like I usually do: washing my hands with it under the tap in the kitchen. Very little if any lather – as could be expected from freshly made olive oil soap. What was more surprising was that the soap paste was quite difficult to dissolve in water running from the tap. To get my little dollop of soap to actually make skin contact through a barrier of water I had to rub it like I really meant it. Partly, this may have been due to the high superfat.

My impression of the soap at this point wasn’t overly positive. But, this was a soap specially designed for a very particular kind of use and environment and testing it on my hands in my kitchen sink without a wash cloth was probably not doing the soap justice. For a proper evaluation I needed to come up with a way to imitate the warm and steamy effect of a hammam.

Since it was chilly winter here in South Africa I decided to pack the soap and take it along on my upcoming trip to Finland. That would give me an interesting opportunity to test my Beldi soap in a genuine sauna environment.

Meanwhile it was time to look for a kessa mitt without which you can’t really use Beldi soap properly. In my local Chinese shop I found nylon gloves made from coarse fabric that looked identical to the kessa gloves I had seen on the internet. Examining the bright green and yellow Chinese gloves in their plastic packaging made me think that these were great for travel but that there had to be more to the kessa than this. What was a genuine kessa like, the ’beldi kessa’ if you could call it that?

Some more googling revealed that the kessa in its original form was made from goat hair. Exactly how I don’t know since I haven’t been able to find any pictures of old, genuine kessas. But the goat hair makes sense since it can be quite coarse and scrubby without being scratchy. Great for gentle exfoliation.

The idea of a goat hair kessa brought a whole new twist (pun intended) to my Beldi project. In addition to being a soapmaker I’m also an enthusiastic spinner, weaver and knitter and this seemed to be the perfect project for combining fibre art with soaping.

Mohair is hair from Angora goats and it so happens that South Africa is one of the main producers of mohair fibre in the world. Kid mohair from young animals is super fine and very, very soft, but mohair fibre from old animals can be quite coarse. In my stash of spinning fibre I knew I had some rather badly carded, coarse, wiry mohair fibre that had failed to inspire any other projects. This project seemed perfect for it. With plenty of extra twist and energy and tightly plied it would make a yarn that would feel like coarse string.

After a couple of hours by the spinning wheel I had a strong yarn that would withstand rubbing and felting – and be coarse enough to be gently exfoliating.

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I was busy with other projects on my loom and so knitting was the order of the day. Thin needles would produce the firmness I wanted in the fabric and with use the mitt would felt enough not to stretch too much when wet.

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There I had my personal goat hair kessa to go with my Beldi soap. The diagonal pattern made by the stitches is due to the high-twist ’energized’ yarn.

Upon arrival in Finland, the first thing I did was have a sauna. In Finland treating your guests to a hot sauna on arrival is hospitable and polite and our dear friends offering us room and board for the first couple of nights were true to this tradition. As a guest you must have a compelling excuse to turn down the offer of a bath in the sauna that has been heated specially for you and in any case we were very happy to accept the invitation.

The particular sauna that we had the privilege of bathing in on that night is one of the most beautiful saunas I know. Very modern with tiny cobalt and ultramarine blue tiles, some with a golden shimmer, covering floors and walls all beautifully lit with tiny LED lights.

And the Beldi soap? Now I was able to test it for the first time in a real steam room setting – Finnish sauna style.

First we had a quick rinse in the shower. Then we sat down on the wooden benches in the hot room where the sauna stove with its hot rocks is situated. After taking our time, getting very warm and repeatedly pouring water over the hot rocks and enjoying some beautiful löyly (the Finnish word for the feel of humid heat that develops in the sauna when water poured on the hot rocks turns to steam) it was time to apply the Beldi.

Without extra water the Beldi soap was a joy to apply. Luxuriously soft it slid onto the skin with ease. Rubbed lightly, it emulsified the moisture on the skin and became white and lotion-like. Trying to get a grip on somebody wearing a full-body Beldi ‘masque’ has got to be an impossible thing; it makes you unbelievably slippery! 🙂 Yet, it felt comfortable and pleasant.

I waited in the hot room for the soap to do its thing on my skin. Interestingly, the eucalyptus scent which felt very light out of the jar became clear and strong on my warm skin in the heat of the sauna. I’ll remind myself to scent this type of soap sparingly in the future – it’s made for use in a hot environment and the heat intensifies the scent.

Ten minutes later it was time for another rinse in the shower while working with the kessa. I can pretty much get to all other parts of my body but it’s really handy to have another person give your back a rub – and it feels nice too. With the kessa I could actually work up a bit of lather, but it was very modest, as can be expected form a 100% olive oil soap with a 10%+ superfat. The most frequent objections to castile or all-olive-oil bar soap is that it “doesn’t lather”, “becomes slimy and snotty” and “melts away too quickly”. In this light Beldi soap seems to be a happy format for olive oil soap: it doesn’t need to lather because it is designed to be used as a masque and with a kessa, and since it’s a paste you only take out what you need and it doesn’t get a chance to either develop snottyness or melt away too quickly.

After all the heat and rubbing, my skin was shining bright like a lobster. It was slightly tingly but super smooth and soft and I felt no need to apply any cream or lotion. Half an hour later the red was gone and I was left with that beautiful glow that follows a good sauna. Lovely! No better way to invigorate yourself after a 24h journey with long flights and long waits in transit.

iPhone 120Überinternational: Beldi or Moroccan black soap and my quick-drying, green Chinese travel kessa purchased in South Africa, in a modern Finnish sauna.

 While most urban saunas today have access to running cold and hot water and are electrically heated, Finns will tell you that you get the best ’löyly’ in a traditional wood heated sauna. These are the typical Finnish saunas that you see on NatGeo and in tourist pamphlets; little freestanding block cabins in the forest by a lake or on the sea-shore. These saunas typically don’t have running water and so a bathing session in a sauna like this is preceded by water and firewood being carried – and a period of a few hours, depending on the season, when the fire in the stove is kept going to heat the sauna.

My father-in-law has a sauna just like this and it turned out to be the perfect place for the ultimate cross-cultural Beldi soap experience.

Grampa’s sauna is right on a very typical little Finnish lake, one of about 100.000 lakes countrywide. In winter the lake freezes over but during the summer months the water temp often stays above 25C for weeks. The water is very clear but a deep amber colour due to the high humus content. The sauna has no running water or electricity and is heated with wood from the adjoining forest. Unlike modern saunas with a hot room and a separate shower room, this traditional sauna only has one room (the other door leads to the saunakamari, or dressing room) and so you wash yourself using buckets and basins right next to the hot stove.

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When we visited Grampa the day was partly overcast, but the water in the lake was beautifully warm with water-lilies bobbing by the reeds. Water was carried, the sauna was heated and fresh, young, leafy silver birch twigs were tied to a bunch, a vihta, for the purpose of swatting the warm, moist skin to increase blood flow and help open up the pores.

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Here was the ultimate sauna experience: getting hot with lovely ’löyly’ in the sauna, then going for a cooling dip in the lake. Back into the hot, steamy sauna to get properly warm again. The small space is dim, lit only by the fire and daylight from a small, steamy window. The fire is crackling, the hot water hisses, your skin tingles with the heat and the scent of heated, fresh birch leaves fills the air. Outside the air rings with the sound of a million mosquitoes and in the distance you can hear the call of the cuckoo.

Beldi Soap aka Moroccan Black Soap aka Savon Noir by Auntie Clara'sBeldi soap posing demurely on the Finnish forest floor

And yes, the Beldi soap came into its own in this little block cabin sauna. Made over 10.000 kilometers away from South African raw materials and following the traditions of Morocco and before that the Levant, it slotted in perfectly with a traditional Finnish sauna ritual. The rich, dark olive oil soap felt lovely on fair Finnish skin. The tactile sensation of having your skin covered in fragrant, slippery soap goes nicely with the sauna experience: from hot and sweaty to slippery to super smooth and silky soft. The scent of olives and eucalyptus mingled nicely with the scent of wood fire and birch leaves, and the colour of the soap matched the colour of the water in the lake. Perfect!

SONY DSCFinnish sauna art: fresh birch leaves on well-scrubbed back 🙂

It’s been an interesting journey, this Beldi soap exploration. When the hot African summer is here again I’ll make a plan and try it out here at home – with my goat hair kessa. And when the local olives ripen again – I’ll make some more.

Beldi Soap aka Moroccan Black Soap aka Savon Noir by Auntie Clara'sBeldi soap basking in Finnish summer night sun

 

 

 

 

50 Responses

  1. Helga Baumann

    Hello Clara! ! I read your story with increasing interest… You are a real Soap-Artist! Perfect eye-catcher fotos! Masterfully done and written. Thank you for sharing! Hälsningar fran Österrike 🙂 Helga

  2. Is there a recipe, sounds like fun to try making it. thank you for your great, informative blogs.

    • If you google you can find several recipes and choose one you like. This one’s very simple though: olive oil, olive pulp, water and KOH.

  3. You made the whole experience sound simply divine. It literally made me sigh with envy. 🙂 Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Susan Maguire

    That was great ! You are the Sherlock Holmes of the soapie world.

  5. Another fine post Clara. Thank you for taking this investigation to it’s natural end. Your attention to every detail makes you a mentor to many of us.

  6. Clara – We have an olive mill close to us and when the olives are ripe, and they are pressing, I will see if I can obtain some and try this. We have a very untraditional sauna in our little community, but I will be able to test this, I’m sure. Will have to visit online to mimic the mitt, though. I don’t knit, but do crochet and only have access to “craft stores”. Thank you once again for all of your wonderful posts and great writing ability for us.

  7. Here in Woodstock, NY is a shop owned by a young Moroccan gentleman who, upon learning that I am a savonniere, proudly brought out a large bucket of glossy beldi soap that his mother had recently made and shipped over from his hometown in Morocco. For full effect, she included a bucket of ground, dried lavender to mix with the beldi, as well as several navy blue kessa. He entertained me with stories of how, as a child, he and the other kids would be called to the town center for a good washdown and would do anything to avoid being scrubbed by the older ladies (the kessel) waiting with kessa and buckets of cold water, as they were quite enthusiastic in their efforts! You have done justice to the spirit of this country soap, thank you for documenting and sharing your experiences with it!

    • Thanks for sharing that beautiful sunshine story – love it! 🙂 Mixing in some dried lavender just before use sounds wonderful. That’s another great aspect of a soap paste: you can mix in additives just before use, additives that you might not otherwise want to store in the soap over extended periods of time.

  8. Such a beautifully written and pictured unfolding of this soap and your spinning etc. As a spinner, weaver and also a soapmaker I truly loved simply everything. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  9. That is a true presentation of Beldi! Your picturesque story took me for a moment across the half of the world and your pictures look like from travel magazine! Thanks Clara for this joyful story!

  10. ” Finns apply themselves with great determination and stamina to international recreational travel…”
    OMGosh ! I laughed and laughed. You are such a lovely sister…
    This delicious , satisfying , intriguing letter to all of us will be in my treasury of ‘most favorite things to read’ forever. !
    What a jewel you are to us.
    laurie

  11. Thank you Clara for a fascinating journey into Beldi-land. It is a masterful piece of research, writing, photography and soapyliciousness. You deserve a most appreciative back-pat [but not with a birch branch this time] for sharing your artistry, wonderful experience and mini travelogue with your readers. Kudos to you soap sister!

  12. Such a grate post, I enjoyed so much reading it! I also heard about Beldi recently but, reading all this about it, now I am inspired to make it myself

  13. I thoroughly enjoyed your post, and greatly identified with your journey, as I am also a soap maker, mainly liquid soap, it was very similar to mine, always wanting to experiment and document 🙂 It will be a challenge getting fresh black olives, I’ll search around for a pipper as well. all the best.

    • Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂 I used fresh olives because it happened to be that time of the year and I had easy access to them. But since fresh olives are seasonal I believe most authentic Moroccan Beldi soap is made with olives macerated or cured in brine. Uncured olives are likely to be a little richer in vitamin e but the salt in macerated olives is not likely to have any negative effect on the product. The best of luck on your Beldi soap journey! 🙂

  14. Wow, what a beautiful story Clara! And photos are amazing as always. I admit I myself have heard about the beldi soap, but your post made me extra curious. I will have to investigate the subject more. 🙂

    • Hi Ksenija! Glad you enjoyed the story! 🙂 Beldi soap is interesting in many ways. It’s designed to be used in a very specific way and it’s also an interesting variation of traditional castile soap.

  15. Hi Clara, Susan Foti from Lye Masters here. I just did an exchange with Heather from LM since I didn’t want to participate in the current soap exchange that Emily is planning. I have so much soap, I couldn’t imagine getting another 17 bars of soap, no matter how awesome they are!

    Anyway, Heather and I traded several products and one item I received was beldi soap. I’ve seen photos and heard about it, but really had no idea what it was,. So was curious to try it out. I wanted more info about the soap and usage before trying out her soap and found your wonderful blog post. What an excellent and informative post on the history of the soap and your adventures in making and using the soap. Your photos are awesome as usual too! Thank you so much for taking the time to write this post. I feel much more confident about how to use the soap now.

    • Hi Susan! Glad you liked the Beldi post and do enjoy the one you got from Heather. It’s icy cold here in Cape Town today and just thinking of a steam room session with Beldi soap warms me up nicely! 🙂

  16. somoroccandotcom

    Great post I enjoyed reading!

  17. What a well written story, and lovely new olive harvest tradition. ♡

    • Thank you! I also love the fact that this is a seasonal product, only made when nature gives us ripe local olives.

  18. Very interesting – but black Beldi soap (Savon Noir Beldi) is also made in Morocco from Argan Oil. The Argan tree grows in near desert conditions and the kernels are hand processed into this amazing dark oil that is very high in vitamin E and unsaturated fats and makes a splendid rich soap. Unfortunately, the oil extraction process can only be performed by hand and is manly undertaken by local Berber women. Production is therefore somewhat limited and the oil is probably diluted with olive oil in most of the advertised Argan products. Moroccans traditionally use unroasted Argan oil to treat skin diseases, and as a cosmetic oil for skin and hair: A trip to Morocco is the best way of obtaining the genuine product.

    • Hi Jonty! Argan oil is definitely a great oil for skin care and my research leads me to believe that it’s often used in conjunction with beldi soap, although perhaps not saponified in the soap itself. One practical benefit of a soap in paste form is that you can mix other ingredients into the ready paste just before use. Hence you won’t need to subject precious Argan oil to the high pH of saponification; you can add it to the soap or the cleansing routine separately.

  19. Hi Clara. In learning how to do clay and lime plaster, I came across the sealant, which is black olive soap. It is in a bar form though and somehow reacts chemically with the plaster to form a seal. I need to learn more about this, but I am sure it is not this black olive soap, yet I can find no other. Are you familiar with a solid bar of black olive soap used in curing plaster? Thank you.
    Eileen

    • Hi Eileen! Thank you so much for making me aware of the Moroccan Tadelakt plaster technique where lime plaster is made water and scratch resistant by rubbing olive oil soap onto it. Until you mentioned it I had never heard of it so I did a bit of Googling about it. Apparently the black soap used for Tadelakt is not a solid bar, but a paste, i. e. it’s simply basic, ordinary Beldi soap. When I say basic and ordinary I mean the kind of Beldi soap that you buy by the kilo or bucket in rural markets: non-superfatted and without fancy additives like essential oils or argan oil. According to one source the soap reacts with the lime plaster and forms calcium stearate (and presumably calcium oleate). It speeds up carbonation of the surface and gives it its water- and scratch-repellent quality. Very interesting!

  20. I have been such of fan of your soaps…………..the designs are just lovely. After reading about your interest in Beldi soap, and then your adventure in making and using it, I’m left wondering………………… is there anything you can’t do?? 🙂 Soaping, spinning and weaving! Clearly cooking! I just wanted to let you know I’m amazed with all you do.

    • Thank you! I really enjoy cooking – and baking in particular. So much so that I decided that I needed to look into things that I could make in my kitchen that didn’t make me the size of a house and so I started making soap.. But I’m really bad at golf.. 🙂

  21. I so enjoyed reading this story of your fabulous beldi experiences!! Now I am blown away not only with the gorgeous soaps (and let’s not forget the coordinating packaging!) you create but your spinning AND writing style. WOW! Thank you for sharing this all encompassing story that you related to us so exceptionally well.

  22. Awesome story, now what a complete artist you are! Soap maker, Weaver, knitter ans writer…Congrats!

  23. Beautiful article and very inspirational – it was a pleasure reading this. I haven’t made beldi soap before – before taking on such a task, is there anything you could recommend that would help me with the soap making journey? Would you recommend one recipe over another?

    • Beldi is really just olive oil, olives, KOH and water. I would suggest experimenting with small batches to see how you like it and what your own preferences are.

  24. Thank you for sharing your experience with Beldi soap! I recently discovered it in the hammam on a trip to Morocco and knew I had to try making my own :). When you calculate your water & KoH, does the olive pulp count as part of the oils? Or do you not include it in the calculations at all?

    • I don’t calculate lye for the olive pulp. It’s rich in oil but it’s hard for me to make any guesses as to how much of it is oil exactly. Also, I like this skincare Beldi soap to have a high superfat so it suits me fine. If you prefer a lower superfat you could calculate a 0% superfat and let the oil in the olives be the superfat.

  25. Gorgeous read! Very captivating and detailed. My sister, who lives in Sweden, just visited Morocco and came back home to Toronto with a lovely jar of Savon Beldi for me. We were all completely confused, my sister included, but I figured it was some kind of soap jelly like they do at LUSH here in North America. I had been using it in the shower (love the texture, love the linseed and olive smell, reminds me of my oil painting classes as a teen) but decided to look online for a little more detail into the tradition and proper usage of this beautiful stuff. I came across this page and voila. All questions answered! I am also Finnish (Estonian, but Finnish by genetics according to 23 and Me, lol) so this was a really fun read! Love the addition of the Birch leaves! Now someone’s just got to smack you all over with a birch branch like us good Estos do!

    • Thanks! Do enjoy your Savon Beldi – it’s such a nice addition to a traditional sauna routine. In Toronto you should be able to get hold of birch twigs.. 🙂

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