One of the softest minerals found on Earth, steatite is commonly called soapstone. Because it has a high proportion of talc, steatite often feels "soapy" to the touch, and it is this property which has given it its common name. In Brazil, this stone is known as pedra-sabão which can be exactly translated as soapstone. Steatite is common in the historic mining districts of Minas Gerais state where in the 17th and 18th centuries large amounts of gold and precious stones were mined.
Soapstone is especially common in the hills surrounding Ouro Preto, a beautifully preserved city that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the 18th century, stone carvers in Ouro Preto began to use soapstone as a medium for sculpture because it was so easily carved. They also used the same mineral to create useful household objects, in particular for the kitchen. Soapstone pots and pans were first created in Ouro Preto at that time, and in Minas Gerais they are still used in traditional and in modern kitchens.
When soapstone cooking utensils first came into use, cooks quickly discovered that they had one important advantage over metal or clay pots - the stone retains heat much longer than other materials do, and thus soapstone utensils are perfect for stews, for beans, or for soups - anything which is slow-cooked and which benefits from long exposure to low heat.
Soapstone pots and pans can still be found in stores in Ouro Preto and throughout Minas Gerais, and are surprisingly inexpensive considering their utility, durability and beauty. A good soapstone pan will last a lifetime. The only problem with these objects is that they are heavy and somewhat fragile - so taking one home as a souvenir of Minas Gerais is not necessarily an easy thing to do! But if you persevere, you will find a soapstone pan or pot will quickly gain an important place in your kitchen and will be an evocative souvenir of the three-century-old cooking traditions of the baroque mining towns of Minas Gerais.