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Marseille soap-land, by Tristan Rutherford

B.Inspired Magazine, March 2018

France’s second city has bubble troubles. Fake Marseille soap, 95% of it produced in Turkey and China, is diluting the famous brand. Back in the 1880s there were one hundred savonneries scattered across the Provence region. Now only five remain, and skills are being dissolved. Unless a soapy solution is found soon, the venerable Savon de Marseille marque may get washed down the pan.

The tale of Marseille soap is told by topography. Passengers flying into Aéroport Marseille-Provence will note the Camargue wetlands that produce the region’s salt, and the olive tree plantations that supply a thousand local restaurants. Both provide the salt, soda ash and oil for the city’s world famous soap. By 1688 the industry was so ingrained that Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the son of France’s Naval Minister familiar with Marseille, the country’s biggest port, laid down the law on what could and couldn’t be used.

As Article III of the Edict of Colbert made clear: ‘no fats, butter or other materials other than pure olive oil are allowed…or the merchandise will be confiscated.’ A clue to the industry’s vital link to regional prosperity is contained in Article XI: 'Those who have been found disobeying the said rules more than four times will be banished from Provence.' The document was even countersigned by Sun King Louis XIV.

In Marseille and its soapy sister city of Salons-de-Provence, 30km from the airport, business continued to thrive. In 1900 the 22-year-old Marius Fabre set up two soap cauldrons in his garden shed to cash in on the boom. In 1927 his company moved into its present premises – a postcard-perfect Provençal maison shaded by grapevines and green shutters. But with modernity tastes changed. Even Marius’ son, Fernand Fabre, couldn’t scrub the tide of commercial washing detergents. In turn Henri Fabre, grandson of the owner, had to compete against petroleum-based products and hypermarchés, which opened like wildfire across France from the 1960s. Square blocks of hand-made soap weren’t fashionable any more. By the 1970s the choice was stark. Go commercial, chance the traditional, or go bust.

“My earliest memories are of my mother starting work at our family’s factory in Salons de-Provence,” says 42-year-old Julie Fabre. “In 1987 Marie-Hélène Fabre finally took the reigns from my grandfather Henri. Now only five traditional Savon de Marseille soapmakers remain.” Marius Fabre survives today because it stayed loyal to history. Customers were invited to the photogenic factory and workshop. Here bars of soap are stamped with ‘72% huile Savon Extra Pur moulds’, to show they conform to the Edict of Colbert rules concerning the quantity of oil used. A mini museum explains the timeless recipe, which remains unchanged since 1688. Guests may even purchase a piece of La Provence Profonde in the form of a hand-stamped bar of Savon de Marseille for €1.75.

Julie Fabre sees a new way to secure the future of Marseille soap. The l'Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP) ruling was initially introduced to  protect locally specific foodstuffs like Saint Marcellin cheese. In 2009 it was extended to include wines. “Now it’s used to safeguard geographically specialised products like porcelain from Limoges,” explains Fabre. “Along with other remaining soapmakers belonging to the L'Union des Professionnels du Savon de Marseille (including Savonnerie du Midi, founded in 1894, and Savonnerie Le Sérail, a Marseille brand since 1949) we have submitted a dossier to protect the Savon de Marseille marque.” The great-great granddaughter of Marius Fabre has an additional interest in success. “For me, my life and my family history are exactly the same.”  

La Grande Savonnerie in the Vieux Port of Marseille is trying a different tack. Where ships have exported Marseille soap for centuries, 27-year-old Sylvain Dijon hopes that youth can invigorate the brand. The youngest master soapmaker in France presides over interactive manufacturing lessons within a working Savon de Marseille factory. “I have a one ton cauldron for manufacture and a one litre cauldron for expositions,” explains Dijon. “But the thousand-year-old recipe remains the same.” His 45-minutes lessons, conducted in English or French, begins with the 72% mix of olive oil. “Although this is pressed many times, and is not the extra virgin oil you drizzle on salad at home.”

The process of saponification is traditionally achieved by adding ashes and Mediterranean seawater in place of caustic soda and salt. It’s a complex process that Dijon spent five years studying at university, before training on the job to become a Maître Savonnier. This mixture is heated to 45°. Then bars are cut and stamped with a logo, or moulded into stars, hearts and other shapes. Visitors may pay €7.50 for the interactive show, or part with €29 for an entire kilo of their own hand-made soap. Dijon’s skills have been passed on to tens of thousands of visitors thus far. Most importantly, La Grande Savonnerie welcomed “groups of young students from 86 schools from as far as Paris, London and Tokyo” last year alone.

Soapmaking skills also safeguard a piece of priceless Marseille history, argues Dijon. “Further edicts by Napoleon in 1812 made the soap all the more memorable, giving the product a unique stamp.” At the Paris Exposition of 1900, where talking films and escalators were first publicised, Savon de Marseille was awarded a grand prize, enhancing its popularity even more. At the time a new ferry bridge allowed passengers to cross Marseille’s Vieux Port, a project part financed by the soapy riches that sailed out underneath. Bars of green soap, made from olive oil, were exported for bodily use. White bars, made from cheaper ingredients like palm oil that arrived on the ships that sailed home, were sold for use in the laundry, bathroom and kitchen.

“The product’s health benefits are endless,” concludes Dijon. “Marseille soap is made from local ingredients and is 100% biodegradable.” Its naturalness aids its longevity. A 250g bar used twice a day in a shower is good for two months – double that of other soaps. Dermatologists recommend its hypoallergenic properties for psoriasis, acne and eczema thanks to its high pH 9.5 content. Traditionally the product was also recommended as shaving foam, stain remover, gum-friendly toothpaste and moth repellent when a cube is placed in a wardrobe. Night cramps can allegedly be avoided by placing a bar at the bottom of your bed. It’s a  minor miracle – but its popularity remains on a knife-edge. If unwary shoppers purchase fake Savon de Marseille from China packed with parabens, the myth will be broken, and the brand’s reputation rinsed away with it.

A man with a different plan to save Savon de Marseille is Dijon’s colleague, Jean-Baptiste Jaussaud. Next month he presides over the opening of Le Musée du Savon de Marseille, or MuSaMa, a massive new soap museum. Jaussaud’s masterplan deviates from the L'Union des Professionnels du Savon de Marseille’s pursuit of geographical protection. “By making our marque top-of-mind it will increase popularity,” he explains. “Our traditional liqueur pastis doesn’t have a trademark, but customers around the world still associate the drink with Marseille, and prefer local brands like Ricard and Pernod best.”

The new museum will certainly raise awareness. Jaussaud demanded its 400m2 interior be playful and interactive. It includes a soap-making workshop like the one at La Grande Savonnerie. A shop will sell shower gels, shampoos and soaps from leading producers like Le Sérail. The temporary exhibition space will open with a ‘bathroom of the future’ show featuring Japanese toilets and robotic towel assistants, with an app that runs your bath – all with timeless Marseille soap showing alongside. MuSaMa sits around the corner from the Musée d'Histoire de Marseille. The latter museum hosts soap making equipment from around 1900 when Marseille churned out 100,000 tons per year: half of all French soap production.

“You may be familiar with Proust’s madeleine,” says Jaussaud, referring to the subconscious memory that certain tastes and smells elicit. “Well, Savon de Marseille is no different.” Its whiff of clean sheets and childhood scrubs are still familiar to French people of all classes. Thanks to government protection and a new round of branding, city authorities hope that customers will purchase soap from Marseille, just as they plump for pesto from Genoa or sparkling wine from Champagne. Savon de Marseille should be making bubbles for a long time yet.

More stories from Marseille, by award-winning travel writers Tristan Rutherford and Kathryn Tomasetti, can be perused here