Castile Soap, A Spanish Classic

September 2010

Have you ever given a second thought to a bar of soap? It has a fascinating role to play in Spanish history where soap was first shunned by Christians as a sign of unfaithfulness, and later became one of Castile’s proudest contributions to courtly life. 

Although not used in Europe, soap was known in the Fertile Crescent, modern day Syria, Iraq and Armenia, as early as 2300 BC. People made it from animal tallow and ashes.

In the Egypt of the Pharaohs, people used soap as part of a skin care regimen, while the Roman scholar Pliny wrote about the production of olive oil soap. The Roman citizens first used it for cleaning textiles and later for bathing -- scented with rose petals, laurel and herbs.

Soap went out of favor with the fall of the Roman Empire -- resulting in centuries of fragrant Europeans! It was especially so in Spain during the occupation of the Moors. The Christians wanted to distinguish themselves from their Muslim overseers. Some say this is why jamón, ham, became the signature product of Christian Spain, for its consumption was forbidden to the observant Muslims and Jews in their midst. To this day Spaniards consume more ham than any other people in the world do. (I have no quarrel with that as a lover of jamón and bacon!)

However, the other distinguishing action is a little more bizarre. Muslims ritually bathe prior to praying in their mosques, and their civil architecture is resplendent with water, fountains, and baths in contrast to their desert origins. Yet for a time in Spain, Christians rarely bathed at all – as allergic to soap as a little boy playing outside! Some suggest that it was a way to distinguish themselves from the others. Why not prove your faith by not bathing – ritually or otherwise? I am sure their neighbors could get a whiff of a Christian a block away.

However, by the late Middle Ages -- the time Spain was becoming a more cohesive and confident society under Fernando of Aragon and Isabel of Castile and their successors -- there was a renewed interest in the cleanliness brought by using soap. Although the base of soap had usually been tallow, or rendered animal fat, the people of Spain recognized that their most plentiful source of oil grew on trees – miles and miles of olive trees as far as the eye can see. So they revived the ancient tradition of the Middle East by creating a smooth fragrant soap superior to the crude one made from tallow. 

From the kingdom of Castile came an appealing soap, which swept the fashionable courts of France and the rest of Europe. 'Pure Castile' soap has remained the 'gold standard' of soaps for several centuries.

I remember when I visited my first Parador, one of those astonishing castles, monasteries, and manor houses that the Spanish government restored in the rural landscape. I think it was the castle in Olite back in the 1960's, in the center of a small town that served as the seat of the Royal Court of the kingdom of Navarra in the Middle Ages. 

Impressive as the thick stone walls and crenellated towers of the palace were (it is one of the finest examples of civil Gothic architecture in Navarre), the memory that most sticks in my mind was a luxurious soaking in a grand bathtub with a cake of Heno de Pravia filling the room with a clean natural aroma. It was an almost magical experience after having driven hours along the byways of rural Spain. It is funny how seemingly trivial items are the source of fond memories. This particular soap has graced Spanish homes and inns for over 100 years.

About the turn of the 19th century, one of the founders of an esteemed cosmetics company was passing through the Cantabrian village of Pravia, in Northern Spain – most likely via horse and carriage. Around him, the local farmers were busy cutting heno, hay, a grass used for livestock. He loved the aroma so much that when he returned to Madrid he reproduced the fragrance of the fresh mown grass and blended it with geranium, lavender and a hint of sandalwood. He made the bar mossy green and wrapped it in yellow, the color of heno when it dries. 

At about the same time, a more exotic soap emerged. It contained mineral salts from a fashionable hot spring in Galicia where wealthy Spaniards went to "take the waters." The spa still welcomes visitors to its healing waters on the tiny island off Galicia named 'La Toja.' It is west of Pontevedra and just down the road from Santiago de Compostela.

The story is told that an ailing donkey was abandoned by its master on the island of La Toja and given up for dead. The owner returned to the island some time later and found the animal in good health. The miracle was attributed to the therapeutic hot springs of La Toja and the idyllic island became a famous spa where some guests still come to take the waters and immerse themselves in mud baths.

The third entry into this golden age of Spanish soap at the beginning of the 20th century is Maja, with its classic fragrance of rose, jasmine and other flowers unchanged after 100 years; it contains olive oil as did classic Castile soaps of hundreds of years ago. The family business is now operated by the third generation. Grandfather Esteban Monegal was a well-known artist, sculptor and violinist who decided to produce a soap that would be a work of art as were his other creative endeavors. Thus he named the company Myrurgia, or the art of making myrrh.

The romance of soap seemed to be destroyed when soap production was absorbed into the detergent industry in the mid 20th century. Whatever soap the industrial producers offered, they replaced olive oil with much cheaper oils such as cottonseed and linseed, often mixed with animal tallow and fish oil. They introduced chemicals to speed the soap making process. Today a typical bar of commercial soap contains some 20 different chemical ingredients including artificial dyes and synthetic (often overly pungent) perfumes.

Ah, but there is hope yet. One of my gratifying discoveries is an exquisite hand made soap that is the labor of love of a retired couple. Following a medieval recipe they discovered, the couple makes no compromises -- beginning with their choice of costly extra virgin olive oil from their own grove of arbequina olive trees. 

The soap's delicate scent comes from essential oils steam-distilled from rosemary leaves, lavender petals and pine needles. To the fresh soap, they add a pinch of sea salt as well as lemon juice, and individually wrap each one by hand. Soap of this quality, totally made of extra virgin olive oil rather than tallow, is what made Castile soap the gold standard in Europe for centuries.

I hope you have a new appreciation of humble soap, which you use every day without much thought. Whatever our faith, I don’t think being 'gamey' is a good way to express it! You and I can still enjoy pure Castile soap, which changed the habits of Europe.