A Soap story from Marseille | Savon de Marseille

Written by on December 18, 2018 in French Icons, French Style

Genuine Marseille soap is made by artisans with the provenance, passion and long-standing tradition in their blood to lay claim to makers of genuine Marseilles soap. A bar that contains 72% olive oil – and once tried, you will always be loyal to its soapy concoction.

History of Marseille Soap

In 1688 Louis IV passed the Edict Of Colbert allowing the use of Savon de Marseille label for olive oil soaps. By 1924 there were 132 soap makers, but by 1950 there was an explosion of petrol-based soaps and the olive oil soaps went out of fashion. Now there are just five savonneries who can claim the true title Soap de Marseille and they have a certification mark to prove it too – a small square soap block with the Union des Professionals du Savon de Marseille stated clearly on their packaging.  Without that, the soap is in effect – a fake.

Marseille Soap today

Fer a Cheval, Marius Fabre, Savonnerie du Midi, Le Serail and Pre de Provence produce the ever popular green olive oil soap bars. To earn the classification of Marseille soap, it has to fulfil certain criteria. It must be made in Marseille, in a cauldron, have plant-based oils and be fragrance free, no dyes, no preservatives. Any chemicals, additives or mention of allergens and you’ll just have an ordinary soap. Many soap makers buy flaked soap, soften the flakes through rollers and add perfumes and colourants. The genuine article is hard, homogenous. Its angular imperfectness wears down slowly, the special soapy lather lasts for about six weeks even with daily use.

Using it for the first time was a revelation – good for skin and for hair. My skin felt clean, but not dry and it left my hair soft.

How Marseille Soap is made

The area around Marseille provides all the ingredients – olives, salt from the Camargue and from the port, palm, groundnut and whale oil to stabilize the soap. Olive oil on its own produces a sloppy soap, the other oils enable the soap to clean, not break but still dissolve in water. There’s a five-step soap making process and the genuine bars must have a minimum olive oil content of 72%.

Using antique machinery, the soaps pass through several stages. First there is empatage, pasting all the ingredients together in large cauldrons, like a witch’s brew, until homogenous. The second stage, cuisson et lavage, is the process of cooking the soap and then washing out the salts.  A taste test is made, physically with the tongue, and if too much “sting”, more water is washed through. Washing removes glycerol and fatty acids, leaving soap behind.

Like boiled treacle, the soap is poured into cooling vats to sit for 48 hours. It’s then sliced into strips and put into miniature blocks and cut using wire or traditional soap cutting machines. The bars are then stacked on wooden shelves to dry. They range from 1000g to 100g blocks. For Marius Fabre, Le Mistral wind passing through the drying room allows the soaps to dry slowly to avoid splitting. Their soaps are cut and scraped to create a crisp edged soap. The final touch is estampillage – stamping the soaps with their trademark names and proudly advertising the 72% olive oil content. Marius Fabre hand stamp their soaps before cutting. Le Serail use an old stamping machine with four plates that emboss and give the soap a softer shape as the machine squeezes the soap in the process. Once stamped, the soaps are simply packaged, nothing fussy.

Why Marseille soap is so special

As with many artisan skills, it takes a long apprenticeship to learn how to make soap. Family run Marius Fabre was founded in 1900. Secrets kept and passed down the generations. Le Serail was founded in 1949, by Vincent Boetto. His grandson continues the business. Producing soap is a passion and not about time saving. It is the process of creating, getting close to the product, using your hands, the physicality of the process that deems these soaps worthy of their status. A commercial soap can be made in just four hours, packed and shipped within the day.

Marseille soap takes weeks, space is at a premium, and because of this the price is higher. But you will have an authentic product and a supporting role in keeping these traditions going and soft skin to boot.

Judi Castille is a freelance writer, illustrator and landscape/farm photographer with a passion for gardening and cheese. She lives permanently in Creuse, Limousine in the heart of cow country and blogs at: judicastille.com

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