Soap of the south – Marseille Soap
There is soap, day to day oval bars slightly perfumed. There are French soaps, angular with the words Savon de Marseille struck on them. But there is also a very special group of soap makers who can genuinely call themselves Marseille soap makers, who have the provenance, passion and long standing tradition in their blood to lay claim to making the genuine 72% olive oil soap that once tried, you will always be loyal to.
Back in 1688 Louis IV passed the Edict Of Colbert allowing the use of Savon de Marseille to 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 grew out of fashion. Now there are just five savonnerie 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 Savonde de Marseille stated clearly on their packaging. Without that the soap is in affect – a fake.
Fer a Cheval, Marius Fabre, Savonnerrie du Midi, Le Serail and Pre de Provence produce the green olive oil soap bars. Famous for being angular, square or oblong, the soaps must be made in Marseille, must be made in a cauldron, have plant based oils and be fragrance free, no dyes, no preservatives Any chemicals, additives or mention of allergens and its a sure bet you just have any other soap made in the city or using the flakes soap that comes from there. Many soap makers buy flaked soap, mill to soften the flakes through rollers and add perfumes and colorants.
The genuine article is hard, homogenous. I love how a new bar of soap is slightly difficult to hold, its angular imperfectness wears down slowly, the soaps last and although slightly slimy to the touch when wet, the final soapy slither disappears a good six weeks later after daily use.
I came across this soap after moving to France, wanting a natural soap with no harsh chemicals. Good for skin and for hair it was a revelation. My skin felt clean, but not dry. My hair felt clean and soft. I am also a great believer in protecting trades and traditions and knowing where products come from.
The area around Marseille provides all the ingredients – olives for olive oil, salt from the Camargue and into the port the other necessary oils – palm, groundnut and lopra to stabilize the soap. Olive oil on its own produces a very sloppy soap, the other oils enable the soap to clean, not break and yet dissolve in water. But once the five step soap making process is complete, the genuine bars must have a minimum olive oil content of 72%.
Using antique machinery the soaps pass through stages. First there is Empatage or pasting all the ingredients together in large cauldrons, like a witches 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. The soap is then sliced into strips and then into miniature blocks using wires or traditional soap cutting machines. The bars are then stacked on wooden shelves to dry. They range from 1000grm blocks down to 100grm. For Marius Fabre, Le Mistral wind passing through the drying room allows the soaps to dry slowly to avoid spitting, around two weeks .Their soaps are cut and scrapped to create a crisp edged soap. The final touch is Estampillage – stamping the soaps with their trademark names and 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.
Lie many artisan skills, it takes a long apprentiship to learn how to make soap. Marius Fabre was founded in 1900. His factory has a big soap green metal sign outside. A family affair. Secrets kept. Le Serail founded in 1949, by Vincent Boetto. His grandson continues the business, learning along the way that hand producing soap is a passion and not about time saving. It is the process of creating, the nearness to the product, the use of 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 a few weeks, so space is a premium, and because of this the price will be higher. But you will have a traditional product, a supporting role in keeping these traditions going and soft skin to boot. What more could you want from something as simple as soap.
All the manufacturers have great websites to visit to learn more about soap making. You can buy flaked soap from them too, to make your own home-made soaps, adding oatmeal, or essential oils. The soap will have rich lather and be long-lasting. You might also see black soaps made with potassium and lavender soaps using the very French herb we so love. Many of the companies also make liquid soaps. Although they make the most traditional of soaps, they have to move with times, but all their soaps will still have the natural ingredients we love.