Cleaning up - making soap in France
For most of us using soap and water several times a day is as natural as eating. It has been that way in one form or another since the Romans popularized the cleansing properties of oil, water and ash. But it was in the south of France, amid an abundance of sunshine, olive oil, salt and lime, that soap production stepped up a gear in medieval times, with savon de Marseille becoming a household name by the end of the 17th century. Today, only a handful of factories remain but in keeping with these sustainability-conscious times the biodegradable olive-oil based soap is back in fashion.
Wherever you go in Provence, there is always at least one store selling colorful soaps and perfumes. Here you will find soap made with goat and even donkey milk. Le Chatelard in Saint-Auban-sur-Ouvèze has been making soap since 1802 but it doesn’t describe its products as savon de Marseille, calling them instead senteurs de Provence (“scents from Provence”). And that is an important distinction, because there are strict rules on soap naming around these parts. A perfumed soap made from donkey milk is not a true savon de Marseille.
At the Marius Fabre soap factory in Salon-de-Provence, a small town some 95km north of Marseille, export manager Celine Sloboda tells us genuine savon de Marseille has to satisfy four criteria to be worthy of the name.
“The soap must be in the shape of a cube, it must contain at least 72 percent vegetable oil, it must under no circumstances be perfumed and it must not be colored, instead retaining the natural color of the oil,” she says as we tour the factory founded in 1900. “A true savon de Marseille is a natural product that is very environmentally friendly and we hope to receive an AOC designation this year. Unfortunately there are a lot of fakes on the market, but there are four approved manufacturers and we have been using a shared logo for several years now.”
All around us there are giant blocks of soap (some weighing almost 50kg) resplendent in their natural green and yellow hues. We peer down into giant vats, called chaudrons, of soda and fat and we instinctively pull away. The last thing the greenish-brown sludge puts you in mind of is cleanliness, but after 10 days of bubbling away at 120C it will produce 20 tons of soap.
“This soap is so pure it can be used as toothpaste”
A beautiful painting of the Madonna catches my eye. “Working with soda is extremely dangerous and the Madonna is there to protect us from accidents. You will find her in every soap factory,” says soap master Jean-Pierre Denne.
One of the soap master’s more unsavory tasks is to taste the paste toward the end of the process to make sure there is no soda in it.
“This soap is so pure it can be used as toothpaste,” Sloboda tells us, adding that it is also used in hospitals, for baby care, moth repellent, to kill aphids, and for all kinds of washing and cleaning in the home.
“It is also said to be good for leg cramps. A lot of people leave a piece of soap at the bottom of their bed at night.”
Marius Fabre’s biggest export market is Japan. The well-stocked boutique also contains perfumed soaps, but these are savonnettes, not savons. Savonnettes are smaller soaps that are available in a range of shapes and often contain shea butter instead of olive oil.
So why does genuine savon de Marseille soap have to be cube-shaped?
“A cube was much easier to hold in the days when people used washboards and then it became a tradition,” Sloboda says.
Nowadays liquid soap is more common than bar soap, but Sloboda says the trend is changing.
“More people are going back to solid soap. Many think it feels more natural, while avoiding the use of plastic also makes it more environmentally friendly.”
Our next stop, Savonnerie Le Sérail in Marseille, was founded in 1949 and is today run by Daniel Boetto, who inherited the business from his parents. The soaps here are cheaper than at Marius Fabre but no less desirable. In keeping with its surroundings the boutique is a bit rough around the edges, but charming nonetheless, and filled with female customers.
Liliane Sennedot and Fabienne Auzende are among the ladies sniffing around the store.
“We live nearby and often shop here because we are careful to buy only genuine products. We have always used savon de Marseille for almost everything. As for savonnettes, we like the lemon-scented ones the best,” say the women as they fill their baskets with a whole range of small soaps to be given as gifts.
Where to stay
Château de la Chèvre d’Or
This charming hillside hotel in medieval Èze is the height of luxury, with a two-Michelin-starred restaurant the icing on the cake.
Rooms from €310 pp.
Every bit as luxurious as the Chèvre d’Or, this splendid boutique château on the other side of the village was once home to Prince Wilhelm of Sweden.
Doubles from €315.
Boetto, whose company is one of just four approved savon de Marseille producers, says business is good.
“There is a clear trend for people wanting natural products. We now export to almost every country,” says the 35-year-old soap maker who practically grew up in the factory and knows all there is to know about making soap.
“One of the features of our soap is that we use a very green olive oil from the second pressing,” he says, looking into a vat of thick green soup.
We continue our journey eastward along the coast, toward the Riviera and the stunning medieval hilltop town of Èze, where the perfumeries Galimard and Fragonard both have boutiques. Their factories are to be found in the perfume capital of Grasse a few kilometers north.
Galimard focuses mainly on fragrances and cosmetics, but things are different at its much bigger neighbor Fragonard. Busloads of visitors pull up one after another to visit the factory and shop. Every year the perfume house showcases a different flower. In 2014 it was the turn of the sweet pea, with a line of perfume, candles and soap.
You won’t find big green blocks of soap at the luxury end of the market. Fragonard’s soaps are all perfumed, in pastel colors, and beautifully shaped into ovals, hearts or little ducks.
Not bad going for something that has its roots in one of the dirtiest cities in France.
Text: Evelyn Pesikan
Published: January 8, 2015
Last edited: May 20, 2017