Le Savon de Marseilles
What reminds you of Provence? Is it the endless fields of Lavender, the Melon de Cavaillon, the Mimosa, the Herbes de Provence? What about the gorgeous soap? The typical smell and colour of the traditional Savon de Marseilles is an icon French people are proud of, especially Marseilles’ inhabitants.
A few decades ago, there were over 100 traditional factories in the region of Marseilles and they employed almost 10,000 people, which was a third of the city. However, nowadays there are only four of them left, and they are very protective towards their traditional Savon. They associated to fight to protect the trade names which at the moment is free for all as the term “Savon de Marseilles” is not a label.
When did it all start? How did the years change the production and the soap?
The Savon de Marseilles has been produced for centuries, but it really owes its name to Monsieur Colbert, the Premier Ministre of Louis de XIV who passed a law in 1688 to regulate the production of the soap, stipulating that the fat used to make the soap had to be 100% of vegetal origin. He forbade the use of animal fat and then regulated the process. For example, the preparation could only be heated in great open cauldrons.
In the old days there weren’t many competitors and every household in France was using the soap, buying it per kilo. It was used for personal hygiene but also for the laundry or to clean the house. The golden age for the industry reached its peaks in the 40s. By the 50s it started to decline, mainly due to the introduction of new products such as synthetic detergent and washing machines, but also new soap factories elsewhere and the increasing number of supermarkets. As a result, many factories had to close their doors forever.
The Savon de Marseilles nowadays faces many contre-façon. But what is the industry doing to prevent this and to ensure that the traditions are respected and to assure the consumer of its quality?
How do I know that the savon I purchased is genuine? Well, the chances are that if you are buying it in a supermarket, it is not the real one. You can find a soap called “Le Petit Marseillais” in the French supermarkets. Don’t be fooled; this is an American company which has nothing to do with the four traditional usines. There are some little tricks to recognise the genuine Savon de Marseilles. First, its colour. It is either green (made with olive oil) or white (other vegetal oil) and the oil contains content must be 72%. Secondly, it has no perfume. Thirdly, look at the list of ingredients. The soap is made with vegetal oil, lye, salt and water and nothing else. The soap contains no dyes or preservatives. Anyone in the world can make soap and call it Savon de Marseilles, and that is where the traditional factories are struggling.
The only place to find a real one is to buy it in a local shop or in one of their succursales which you can find all over France, but you can also purchase it online, even if you live in the UK.
Made with olive oil, this green soap has a lot to offer. It is used for personal hygiene and it is ecological. Perhaps the smell is not as attractive as some of the chemically produced soap with artificial scents (never mind, pop in the city of Grasse and purchase some perfume). After all, aren’t we all looking to go back to more natural products? We all try to avoid SLS and chemicals which are known to cause ill-health. So, using a genuine Savon de Marseilles is guaranteed to be natural and yes, it costs a little more than the contre-façons you can find in the supermarkets, but your skin will be grateful for it. It is hypoallergenic and therefore extremely good for your skin.
As for the white one (which is actually a little creamy coloured), it is used for everything else, from laundry to cleaning the house, the windows or to chase moss from your wardrobe. Regardless of its colour (only green or white), soap recipes must follow a very strict manufacturing process as per the rules set by Monsieur Colbert in 1688.
Are you visiting the South of France? Why not pop into a traditional Savonnerie?
If you are in the area, visiting a soap factory would be great entertainment for the whole family and it won’t cost a cent as the entrance is free and the bonus is that you can also purchase some genuine Savon directly from the manufacturer. They are open almost all year round, but it is best to check on their website before visiting. They also arrange for group visit in English which must be book ahead.
But what if you can’t visit and still would like to purchase some soap? You can always buy it online directly from the manufacturer. Marius Fabre has an excellent site in English.
The Savon de Marseilles has been around for many years and hopefully will still be for many years to come. Greedy manufacturers can try to imitate and copy the product, but they will never be able to equal this ancestral tradition.
And remember if it is perfumed, or coloured then it is not the real Savon de Marseilles.
The four remaining Savonneries are:
Marius- Fabre in Salon de Provence
Savonnerie Fer à Cheval in Marseilles
Savonnerie du Midi
Savonnerie Le Sérail
CLEAN YOUR IRON AND WINDOWS
· Rub dry soap (white one) on to the surface
· Rub with a newspaper
· Polish with a dry cloth to make it shine
· Put a piece of soap (white one) in your wardrobe
MAKE YOUR OWN LAUNDRY LIQUID
· 40g of shredded white soap
· Mix it with one litre of water
· Shake it well
· Leave it overnight. In the morning, it will have gel-like substance
· Shake it and use it
· If you do not like the smell, you can always add a few drops of essential oil.