How and why did Marseille get so famous for its soap?
First of all, let me ask you, what are two essentiel ingredients needed to make soap?
You need soda and salt. Soda (sodium carbonate and sodium hydroxide) combined with a vegetable oil, creates the base of a Marseille soap. During the heating process impurities can arise. Salt water is washed through the mixture several times for the cleansing. The Camargue region (salt water marshes) next to Marseille, provides for both the soda and the salt.
To have sodium carbonate, the plant known as La Soude (Salsola soda) from the Camargue salt marshes are burned. The ashes of this plant contain up to 30% of sodium carbonate.
Then of course, you have Marseille, a major port along the Mediterranean that had been key in trading ever since the Greeks arrived in 600 BC. Put the well established trading port together with the natural environment providing the raw materials and you have the beginning of the Marseille soap story.
Timeline Marseille Soap
1371 – First official soap maker located in Marseille
15th century – the first industrial factories are established
17th century – Marseille became the main production site of soap in France
1688 – Louis the 14th laid down the rules which institutionalized Marseille soap.
18th century – the Marseille soap became more than just a regional product. Sea trade began and it was being shipped all over the Orient and Mediterranean basin.
19th century – progress in hygiene, technology, railway infrastructure, and advertising continue to expand the demand of Marseille soap. This was the “golden age” and lasted until the beginning of the 20th century.
1940’s – The steady decline started. A lot was due to the production of synthetic detergents, people using washing machines (instead of washing by hand), the set-up of supermarkets where people coud easily buy other products.
The 70’s & 80’s – a return to natural and ecological values, Marseille soap becomes popular again.
Unfortunately, the rebound will never be back to what it was during its golden age. In 1924 there were 108 soap manufacturers in Marseille and 14 in Salon. Today, there are four companies still making Marseille soap the traditional way: Le Fer à Cheval (1856) La Corvette (1894), Marius Fabre (1900), and Le Sérail (1949).
How do you know if you are buying the authentic Savon de Marseille?
There are many products out there using the name « Marseille » to market their product. However, it’s quite simple to know if what you are buying is an authentic Marseille soap, or not. If it wasn’t made in Marseille (or Salon which is quite near Marseille) than it’s not authentic. Below are the other elements to look for:
Only vegetable oils are used and it must contain at least 72%
The very first « Marseille soap » was made only with olive oil. Napoleon, in 1812, adopted a decree defining the shape of the soap (a pentagon) and the words « olive oil », the manufacturer’s name and the name « Marseille » stamped on the soap. In 1927, Marseille soap was redefined as a product made exclusively from vegetable oils (palm oil or copra oil could be used instead of olive oil). Why did « other » vegetable oils get authorized? Believe it or not, there was not enough local production of olive oil for the demand.
FYI – the « olive oil » used in the making of soap is the second press; the first press is oil used for cooking)
No added animal fat, colorings, fragrance or preservatives (hence the term « Extra-Pure » can be used)
There is 5 step process (traditionally using a cauldron) – these five steps take about 10 days.
When you go out to the local markets here in Provence, you will undoubtedly find many soaps to buy. Most of them will be with coloring and perfumes (or sometimes essential oils). You can ask the vendor where the soaps were made. Most, but not all, will be made in the Provence region. It might even be made in Marseille. These soaps can be referred to as « Soap from Marseille ». But if you are looking for the « real » Marseille soap, « Savon de Marseille », you must remember that it will be either green (made from olive oil) or white (made from palm or copra oil). Traditional Savon de Marseille will not be purple and smell like lavender.