Savon de Marseille
Have you brought back blocks of the heavy authentic soaps of France from a holiday? Nothing is quite the same as savon de Marseille, the weight, smell and texture of these soaps delights the senses. In the Middle Ages big blocks of this gentle soap were first crafted in the port city of Marseille, France with the olive oil from local groves, marine ash and sea salted water. Did you know the creation of an authentic block of Marseilles soap requires numerous manual operations and is labour intensive. The process which is three centuries-old has stood the test of time and is still used at the last remaining traditional soap factories of Savonneries Le Sérail and Marius Fabre.
Savon de Marseille is traditionally green or white with the white soap made with palm oil and the green with at least 50% olive oil. The authenticity of genuine Savon de
Marseille is evident by the fine white powder on the surface of the soap. This is actually only a bit of sea salt, which will disappear once the soap is wet. Have you noticed this fine white powder on soap cubes before? Savon de Marseille is totally biodegradable, requires little packaging and its manufacture is environmentally friendly. Authentic Savon de Marseille is stamped with its weight in grams — a practice left over from years ago which allowed households to compare prices and plan their inventories.
During the 1900s, Marseille sadly saw the decline of its soap industry with many manufacturers closing one after the other due to the influx of detergents. In 1949 Vincent Boetto took the challenge to continue soap making with traditional methods with an aim to save and perpetuate the know how of this ancient trade. He started Savonneries Le Sérail and created the Seraglio Soap which has a high content of local olive oil. Vincent Boetto’s story is one of determination. He acquired a farm located within the city; located and installed the large dough pots and other antique equipment needed to manufacture the cubed soap and went about creating the Seraglio Soap.
The antique equipment is lovingly preserved and cared for, and by solely using antique equipment and traditional methods, this soap house has earnt the prestigious label of “Enterprise of Living Heritage” award by the CCI Marseille. Daniel, Vincent’s son, took over the reins in 2009 and continues in the steps of his father. The business has diversified into manufacturing other products such as scented toilet soaps which are made from Marseille soap chips. The toilet soaps come in many colours and sizes ranging from small 25g shapes to 300g blocks, some even with crushed petals or lavender flowers that exfoliate the skin. Want more information on visiting Marseille? Official Marseille Tourism site here
The 6 steps in manufacturing authentic Marsellais soap are as follows:
Step 1 Pasting (empâtage): the ingredients are combined to make a paste
Step 2 Cooking and Washing (cuisson et lavage): the paste is boiled then washed with salt water
Step 3 Pouring into the Moulding Tanks: the paste mixture is poured into large tanks
Step 4 Cutting: the soap is cut usually finishing up as a square
Step 5 Drying: slabs and rectangles of the soap are dried
Step 6 Stamping (Estampillage): stamping the name or brand on the soap
For information on each of these steps, ancient illustrations and factory photos visit The Making of Marseilles Soap, it is a fascinating read with photos that bring the process to life showcasing the antique equipment. Have you have toured a soap factory? I would love to know what you thought. I have visited the beautiful Bridestowe Lavender Farm in Tasmania where lavender soap and essential oil products are made and available for purchase. I am yet to tour a french soap making company.
I love to support artisian producers and respect their desire to stay true to traditional methods despite the temptation to moderise and thereby usually increase their revenue. To be honest, I did not realise traditional soap making was so labour intensive. Have you purchased soap during a trip to France? It is very heavy to bring back in your suitcase but it is such a beautiful and practical souvenir.
Thanks so much and until next time… Annette xx
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