One of my favorite stores in all of Porto is A Vida Portuguesa–just down the street from the iconic Lello Bookstore and overlooking Clérigos Tower, this place is a veritable Walmart of traditional Portuguese goods, stocking everything from Gorreana tea (which I’ve mentioned on the blog before, as it’s produced in the oldest tea plantation in Europe, which just so happens to be Portuguese) to the widest array of Portuguese soap you ever did see.
I paid a visit to this infamous soap aisle over the weekend and, as always, found it equal parts fascinating and confusing. It’s very easy to feel overstimulated by the double whammy of unfamiliar scents and intricate art déco packaging (my sister, who once had a migraine in the soap aisle, is my witness), but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. And so it was that, on the first weekend of 2019, I decided to teach myself about Portuguese soap.
(Long story short: this Guide To Scented Soap™ brought to you by the realization that it’s hard to make informed decisions in the soap aisle of A Vida Portuguesa, where everything is beautiful and only your head hurts.)
Benamor did not start out in life as a soap brand; the brand’s claim to fame was actually the iconic Benamôr Créme de Rosto, a “miraculous” face cream formulated in 1925 that remains unchanged to this day. (I use it as a night cream with zero complaints, but I’ll admit the texture takes some getting used to.)
Cool girls all through the 20th century used Benamor to keep their skin soft and blemish-free, and none seemed to love it more than Amélie of Orléans, former Queen of Portugal, who gave the brand a “royal” stamp of approval in 1935 (conveniently ignoring the fact that the monarchy had been abolished 25 years earlier). Benamor created a range in her honor soon after, the aptly named Rose Amélie.
Today, Benamor stocks four ranges, all of which include a gemstone-like square soap. I’m all for the Alantoíne version, and would 100% give it a royal stamp of approval if I’d been queen at any point in my life.
Marco de Canaveses is a city in northern Portugal known for its natural medicinal waters, which were greatly sought after in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Back then, this popular tourist destination boasted not only an exclusive grand hotel, as did so many other spa towns across Portugal, but also its own brand of beauty and skincare products, created in 1885 and aptly named Muza (meaning Muse).
Now, times have changed and Marco de Canaveses is no longer a booming spa town, but the overall aesthetic has survived in the form of the Canavezes soap brand, which was re-created in 2011 to bring some of that spa town luxury back into our lives. As I’m all for ancient spa towns (I want nothing more than to walk into a deserted art nouveau bathhouse to have my back and shoulders mercilessly turned into mincemeat by overly aggressive water jets), I’ll be sure to try these sometime in the future–and report back on whether they evoke the appropriate feeling of anachronistic dread.
Claus Porto is the holy grail of Portuguese soap, and it shows in the *cough* pricing. The brand was created by two Germans, Ferdinand Claus and Georges Schweder, who started the perfume and soap factory in 1887 under the name Claus & Schweder.
By 1908, Claus & Schweder welcomed a new partner of great business acumen, former accountant Achilles de Brito, into their midst; Brito, in grand cinematic fashion, would go on to annex the company to his own namesake brand, Ach Brito, in 1924. Both brand names have lived on to this day, with Claus Porto competing in the luxury market and Ach Brito in the mass market. (Men’s products, to further complicate matters, have been sold under the brand name Musgo Real [i.e. Royal Moss] since 1936.)
It’s hard to pick favorites in the Claus/Ach Brito family, but I’m currently into the Claus Porto Acacia Tuberose soap (named Voga and sold in tile-inspired packaging), as it’s right in line with my recent discovery that tuberose actually smells great for a flower whose name sounds so close to tuberculosis.
Saboaria Confiança is also a member of the Ach Brito/Claus soap conglomerate, but the look is different enough that it deserves its own spotlight. Created in Braga in 1894, Saboaria Confiança originally specialized in the production of offenbach (or blue-and-white) soap, the quintessential Portuguese soap used to clean everything from clothes to children. Later, the brand branched out into other scented and perfumed products, until they were stocking 150 different types of soap by 1928.
Personally, I’ve always associated Saboaria Confiança with their “technical” soaps, made from downright unappealing ingredients which are apparently great for the skin. The full range, if I’m not mistaken, includes algae, clay, donkey milk, pumice stone, sulfur, and tar. Yeah. I know. Good thing the packaging is beautiful, because I can’t see anybody getting in line to buy these otherwise.
Castelbel / Portus Cale
Castelbel is a relative newcomer to the world of Portuguese soap, which shows in my absolute ignorance of their history until approximately two hours ago. (In my defense, I’d always thought they were yet another branch of the Ach Brito/Claus family.)
Amusingly, Castelbel also owes its success to a man named Aquiles: Aquiles Barros, to be precise. His company was originally created as a manufacturing unit, for foreign luxury brands that wanted to capitalize on the Portuguese appreciation for high-quality scented soaps, but Barros would go on to start his own line of beauty and home products in 2006. In the years since, Castelbel has developed into a full-blown lifestyle brand, stocking everything from candles to, yes, you got it, scented soaps.
(In the meantime, they’ve also created Portus Cale, a luxury range with a focus on home scents.)
The definitive standout, for me, is the white jasmine hand soap, but I wouldn’t be opposed to wearing the scent in other products either. Who knows, maybe I’ll even buy a dainty little hand cream to fight the incoming chill.
All images in this post © their respective brands. Click any image to be directed to the source.
Also, this post was in no way sponsored, which is a tragedy.