If you go to visit Marseille or Provence one day, chances are high that you’ll be tempted to buy some savons de Marseille as souvenirs and gifts. And you’ll be right, as it has been one of the strongest symbols of Marseille for a very long time. And I think that you agree that it would be a shame to buy a savon de Marseille produced in China!
Unfortunately, this risk is important as today, China and Turkey are the biggest producers of savons de Marseille.
Indeed, even though the use of the name “savon de Marseille” was limited to olive oil soaps produced in and around the Marseille area in 1688, it isn’t the case anymore and savons de Marseille aren’t protected by a designation of origin.
Today, the name “savon de Marseille” only refers to a production method. This is why it can be produced in China, Turkey or in UK as long as the method is respected.
So read the following to become an expert and be sure that you buy an authentic savon de Marseille.
The origin of savon de Marseille can be traced to Aleppo soap (from Syria) made from olive and laurel oils, and which has existed for thousands of years. It spread throughout the Mediterranean basin in the wake of the crusades.
The first official savon de Marseille maker was recorded in 1371 and the first soap factory opened in 1593 to meet the increasing demand. At that time, savons de Marseille were produced using only local olive oil. But the fierce competition of factories using tallow to reduce the cost of fabrication pushed the Marseille factories to introduce cheaper oils in the composition of its soaps such as palm, copra, peanut and sesame oils.
The production of savons de Marseille hit the record in 1913, just before the World War 1. Between 1918 and 1939, the production succeeded to rise again. But the arrivals of synthetic detergents for household cleaning from the US after the World War 2 caused an irreversible decline in the production and many factories went out of business.
However, the trend to come back to natural products allowed the savon de Marseille to survive.
The production of savon de Marseille consists of 8 steps and takes about 2 weeks in total.
1 – Pasting: The vegetable oils and soda wash are mixed together in a large vat or cauldron. Under the action of soda and heat, the oils gradually become soap paste. This chemical reaction is also called the saponification.
2 – Rinsing: The soap paste is rinsed several times with salt water to remove the remaining soda.
3 – Cooking: The paste is heated at 100 °C for ten days. Heating starts up every morning and is turned off every night.
4 – Liquifying: The paste is then rinsed several times with fresh water to remove all impurities. Being more liquid, the paste then rests for 2 days.
5 – Casting into moulds: While still hot (between 50 and 70 °C), the soap paste is poured into huge cooling tanks, thanks to an articulated wooden feed pipe.
6 – Drying: The soap is left to dry for 48 hours in a room. When the Mistral wind blows, the windows facing North are opened and the wind shortens the drying-out process.
7 – Cutting: The half dried soap is cut into huge blocks, then cut again into smaller cubes or loafs, which are set out on shelves to finish drying.
8 – Stamping: Stamping on the 6 faces of the savon de Marseille can be done by hands or with a machine mould.
The explanation and the pictures come from the website of Marius Fabre:
A savon de Marseille must respect severals characteristics to be considered as an authentic one:
-The percentage of vegetable oil must be at least of 72%. Be careful as the regulation allows soaps containing tallow to use the name “savon de Marseille” as long as the 4 following production stages are respected: pasting/cooking, salting out the glycerine if any, rinsing and liquefying.
-The colour must be greenish or white, depending of its composition, and will change as it’s aging.
The soap will be greenish if it contains only olive oil, or olive oil mixed with palm and copra oils.
The soap will be white if it contains only palm oil, copra oil and/or peanut oil but no olive oil.
-The shape must be a cube or a loaf. But we also find grated flakes for laundry purposes.
-The 6 faces must be stamped with the following information: manufacturer’s name, weight, percentage of oil and, of course, the legend “Savon de Marseille”.
Savon de Marseille is, by definition, a solid piece of soaps due to the use of caustic ash. So what about its liquid version? Strictly speaking, it isn’t a savon de Marseille because caustic ash is replaced by potash in the fabrication. However, we can consider it as its close cousin.
But what is sure is that soaps with colours and/or smells sold under the name “Savon de Marseille” aren’t authentic savons de Marseille but only derivative products.
The authentic savon de Marseille is a 100 % natural product, exclusively made with vegetable oils without any chemicals or artificial additives. It’s this exceptional purity which gives it its many virtues.
Indeed, savon de Marseille can be used as a beauty product for washing and shaving, an antiseptic, a household product for laundry, floor cleaning and dish washing, a moth repellent….
Nowadays, there are only 4 remaining traditional soap makers in Marseille:
– la savonnerie du Sérail
– la savonerie Marius Fabre
– la savonnerie du Midi
– la savonnerie du Fer à Cheval
If you want to know more about the savon de Marseille, I recommend you to follow one of the tour factory and you’ll be sure to buy authentic savons de Marseille while supporting the local economy.