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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.