It’s a beautiful summer day. The sun is up in the deep-blue sky of Provence, the sounds of the cicadas fill the air, and while La Vie en rose is playing on your old-fashioned turntable, you can smell the sweet scent of freshly baked baguettes and pains au chocolat coming from the bakery right across your bedroom. And you know what? Today is jour de marché… “market day”! Yay! You finish up your petit-déjeuner, you grab your canotier, and off you go!
Bundle of lavender from Valensole. Check. Red ocher specimen from Roussillon. Got it. Calisson candies from Aix-en-Provence. Delicious. Your bucket list is almost full, and there isn’t much more that you can fit in your luggage anyways. But today in Marseille, you’re looking for something else. Something specific. Another piece of France. Irony of ironies, you’re looking for (drumroll)… soap!
“Soap? I thought French people didn’t shower.” Let’s put aside silly stereotypes and begin our search for one of the jewels of French tradition: the picturesque savon de Marseille. As you explore each market stall, you lay your eyes on cute multicolored little soaps: red, yellow, purple… rose, sunflower, lavender-scented… All of them proudly display the engraving “Savon de Marseille.” But you wonder: How do I know these are authentic, genuine Marseille soaps? In other words, how do I know these are the real deal?
A Chunk of French History
Due to its ingredients being readily available in the region, the savon de Marseille has been a tradition in the South of France, especially in Provence and the areas surrounding Marseille (hence the name), since the Middle Ages. In 1688, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, right hand of France’s most famous king—Louis XIV—promulgates an Edict establishing the hard soap’s standard fabrication and main ingredients: it must be produced in cauldrons and made solely from vegetable oils.
In the 18th century, the soap making business is booming and already makes up for about 40% of Marseille’s production. Forty savonneries (soap factories) actively produce the soap, and entire families of savonniers (soapmakers) take advantage of the flowering industry to build their fortune. Beautiful mansions and estates that you can still visit today pop up in and around the cité phocéenne (another name for Marseille). By the end of the 19th century, 10,000 Marseillais produce each year over 700,000 tons of the precious lump.
After World War I, Marseille is the second largest city of France. Its strategic location (on the Mediterranean coast, near the mouth of the Rhône river), its harbor and its railroad network facilitate the import of raw materials and the export of tons of its soap production to French colonies overseas.
But in the 1950s, washing powders, detergents, and chemical soaps deliver a mortal blow to the industry, sounding its death knell. Nowadays, only four soap factories still stand to keep the savon de Marseille tradition alive…
How a Traditional Savon de Marseille Is Made
Like a slow-cooked delicacy, no less than 14 days are needed to make an authentic savon de Marseille. The recipe is quite simple, but its ingredients are of the highest quality. To find out how bricks of soap are made, let’s visit the savonnerie Marius Fabre, one of the last and most emblematic soap factories in the region. Located in Salon-de-Provence (30 miles west of Marseille), the factory has been in operation since 1900 and now produces over 1,000 tons of soap. It is managed by Julie Bousquet-Fabre, great-granddaughter of Marius Fabre, its original founder. Let’s take a quick peak behind the scenes.
- Saponification. I know, it’s a funny word. “Saponification” is the conversion of oils into soap. Jean-Pierre Denne, maître savonnier (master soapmaker) at Marius Fabre, explains: “Vegetable oils, usually olive oil, are poured into a 50-ton cauldron. Lye is then added to the oils. We heat the mixture at 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit) and we let it simmer for 10 days, until it turns into a thick paste.”
- Rinsing. At the end of the saponification process, the “batter” is rinsed several times with salt water to get rid of the lye. To know if the soap is ready to be poured out, Jean-Pierre, our “fire master,” shares his secret: “I take a soap ‘chip’ and put it on my tongue. If it stings, I need to keep rinsing. If it’s salty but doesn’t sting, we’re ready for the next step.”
- Curing. The art of soapmaking is passed down from generation to generation. Jean-Pierre’s son now scatters talc powder at the bottom of large, wooden molds. The soap mixture is then poured inside the molds. It will be left to dry for three days, and its elephant-skin surface will be smoothened to make cutting easier.
- Slicing and stamping. Fourteen days later, the huge slabs of soap are ready to be cut, packed, and shipped! First, they are sliced into pains (loaves), bars or cubes. Gilbert Pons, professional découpeur (soapcutter), then strikes each soap with a heavy metal stamp. The engraving reads: “SAVON EXTRA PUR 72% HUILE” (“EXTRA FINE SOAP 72% OIL”). Finally, each soap is delicately wrapped in a quaint package and ready to be shipped all over the world.
So… How Can I Tell It’s Genuine?
Unfortunately, “Savon de Marseille” is not a brand nor a certification label… yet. The remaining four factories making the actual soap hope to achieve European Certification (IGP) soon. In other words, anyone can put “savon de Maseille” on a soap and pretend that it’s made in Marseille—even if it’s not. Sadly, most of the colored soaps that you will find today on the Provence market stalls are counterfeits made in China, Turkey, or somewhere else but Marseille. But don’t let yourself be fooled. Here are some tips on identifying the true savon de Marseille.
- Ingredients. Three basic ingredients: vegetable oils (usually olive oil), lye and salt water. The genuine savon carries no animal oils, additives, preservatives, parabens, synthetic substances nor artificial chemicals. It is purely and simply natural, biodegradable, and therefore eco-friendly.
- Color and shape. The authentic savon de Marseille only comes in three colors: olive green, brown or beige. No coloring added. Although somewhat darker when it comes out of the cauldron, the soap acquires its distinctive, lighter hue during the curing process. As for its shape, the individual, old-fashioned lump is generally plain cubic, unless it’s sold in bars. It can also be found in more original forms (oval, flakes, etc.).
- Stamp. Since a savon de Marseille possesses a vegetable oil ratio of 72%, it will always carry the words “72% HUILE” (“72% OIL”) stamped on its top and/or its side. If the maker doesn’t specify the ratio, then don’t buy it. Recently, the remaining four traditional Marseille soap makers (1. Marius Fabre, 2. Fer à Cheval, 3. Savonnerie du Midi, and 4. Le Sérail) have joined forces to create a unique stamped logo “Savon de Marseille” that will help you recognize the right soap.
- Scent. Now that’s a no-brainer. Since it has zero additives, the original Marseille soap doesn’t smell like much. If anything, it smells like… olive oil. And if your olive oil smells like my olive oil, then nothing to write home about! So if your soap gives off a pungent perfume or oozes a voluptuous lavender fragrance, you haven’t got the right one.
- Feel. The unadulterated, unscented savon de Marseille is “extra fine.” It’s been rinsed off so many times that it is pure and soothing for the skin. It shouldn’t irritate you in any way, nor give you allergies or sting your eyes when you use it to wash your face.
A Soap With Multiple Uses and Benefits
The traditional savon de Marseille has a wide variety of uses. First and foremost, it is great for your skin, your hair, and even your gums! Its moisturizing and hypoallergenic properties make it an ideal candidate for face and body cleansing. Dermatologists often recommend it for teenagers, people with atopic skins or suffering from eczema or psoriasis. You can also use it to wash your hair… and even as a natural toothpaste! While the olive green soap is for personal hygiene, the brown and beige soaps are for washing the laundry or cleaning around the house.
In olden times, rough bars of the precious soap were sold all over France’s countryside. People would cut a piece of the bar with a wire (like our butter wires) for their everyday needs. Nevertheless, as of now very few companies are still interested in making a soap that takes two weeks in the making. But the four resilient savonneries carrying on the tradition cater to a solid customer base and are making a comeback among sensitive, conscientious, and environmentally aware users.
Today, thousands of users, especially in Scandinavia, South Korea and Japan, enjoy the health and beauty benefits of the véritable savon de Marseille. So next time that you see a genuine savon at a market stall, reach in for the chunky soap and remember: you are holding in your hand a centuries-old savoir-faire and a fascinating piece of French history!
This is a fantastic article. Really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing.