Walking outside of my apartment on my first morning here in Marseille, I was greeted by the facade of a savonnerie, a soap store. Odd, I thought to myself, to have Savon de Marseille (Soap of Marseille) advertised so publicly. I resolved to return, but I had an appointment. About half a block down the street was another soap store, advertising the same soap of Marseille. On my way to my lunch appointment near the old port, a walk of about fifteen minutes, I passed no fewer than four soap stores.
It turns out that for centuries, soap has been Marseille’s most famous export, so famous in fact that the claim of “Savon de Marseille” must be backed up by a specific recipe (even though it need not be made here).
The smell of soap is pleasant and strong as I walk into the Musee du Savon (soap museum – yes, museum) along the south side of the old port. Michel Ceccaldi is the guide, and, though overwhelmed being the only staff member on duty today, explains to me the history of Marseille soap. “Soap was not invented here in France,” he says. “It has been around since prehistoric times. But in Marseille it was improved.” The small, single room museum explains this journey of soap.
Antique machinery used in the production of soap are one of the highlights of the museum.
Throughout much of history, soap had been made with animal fat as its base. However, Marseille, being a central point of Mediterranean trade, was able to gather the necessary oils to make it animal-free. Originally, it was made of olive oil, 72% olive oil, in fact, and that stamp of 72% pure olive oil became the hallmark of Marseille soap. (Today, Michel tells me that palm and coconut oil account for about 90% of the soap produced here, with traditional green olive oil soaps being a small minority.)
Soap requires three main ingredients: fat, water, and lye. Traditionally it was animal fat mixed with ash. Marseille, however, used only vegetable oils, combined with lye or soda, and local seawater. This process was codified in the 1688 Edict of Colbert, laid out by Louis XIV. Thus, for the last 330 years, any soap advertised as Savon de Marseille has followed these rules, including being 72% pure. This certainty in ingredients and quality led to Marseille soap becoming the most desired in the world.
These old soaps are stamped with the manufacturer, weight, and 72% pure.
While today there are only four operating soap factories in Marseille, it was once the primary industry here in the city. The museum explains that in 1900, Marseille produced 120,000 tons of soap per year, roughly half of the world’s supply! In 1913, it was found that 50% of local workers were employed within the soap industry. It turns out that there is good reason – and tremendous civic pride – behind there being so many soap shops here in Marseille.
The facade of the small museum is hard to miss.
The best part of the experience at Musee du Savon is the chance to make your own soap. Soap “bars” are extruded from a machine, much in the way that shaped pastas are extruded from a pasta machine. Using both hands and a flat-bladed tool, I cut the soaps (both traditional green and lavender-scented purple) into smaller bars. From there, one shapes them into cubes and stamps them. Here at the museum, rather than the traditional Savon de Marseille stamp, visitors are given letters to stamp their names or initials (or those of loved ones as these make a wonderful gift).
Hey, I tried to make them even. It turns out cutting and shaping soap by hand takes talent!
Next door at the gift shop, or in any of the soap stores throughout the city, you can see what a professional can make. Rather than slightly uneven cubes – my artistic ability is overwhelming, I know – soaps can be found in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and quantities. All, however, have one thing in common: they share the same recipe and quality that has defined this industry here for centuries.
So many soap gift baskets to choose from!
Marseille has so many exciting and enticing sights and smells, but the smell of soap is one of the best. When you visit this amazing city, be sure to stop into a savonnerie. Marseille’s soap is something special.
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