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.
Cavaillon history walk – hidden treasures in Provence
Yesterday morning, while walking the ancient Roman road near my house in Cavaillon I stumbled upon more than ancient ruins. Not just one, not just two but a handful of lavender plants here and there. Surrounded by pine trees, thyme and limestone blocks from the Roman quarry I couldn’t help to marvel at this hidden lavender holding on to its fading purple flowers as if to give the curious wanderer one more treasure before winter arrives.
On my hike, that I have often done but never guided by Annie Gaudin, historian at the Cavaillon Heritage Museum, I put together the pieces of my puzzle.
Next year marks my 20 years in France so now I guess I can say I have had as many American Christmases as French. In 2005 we managed to escape to Oregon as a family for an American Christmas, but those days are behind us now that the kids are in junior high, airfare is outrageous and the Pink Lady apples are being sold during the winter months (my husband’s job).
People often ask me what I prefer. Do you prefer France or America? Where do you like to have Christmas? What food do you cook? French or American?
When you live with two cultures, the answer to that question is never a straight shot. I often find myself stumbling over the question not knowing what to say. “Well, it depends…” I think and then end up asking myself if what I like, eat, and do is more French or more American.
So this year, in light of the holiday season and all the traditions across the world, I have made some mental (and now written) notes of what I enjoy most about a Provencal Christmas.
December 4th, Saint Barbara’s Day (La Sainte Barbe)
We usually pick up our packet of wheat at the local boulangerie where the money goes to a humanitarian fund. Once we’re home the kids get out the cotton, find a small plate or bowl that mom doesn’t use much, spread the cotton on the plate and then “plant” their wheat, not forgetting the water of course. Day by day we see it grow and on the 25th it’s placed on the Christmas dinner table for everyone to see if your wheat is bountiful (dark green, thick and tall) or meager (sparse and brownish). The saying goes that the way your wheat looks on Christmas day is a prediction of your year to come (Quand le blé va bien, tout veint = When your wheat looks good, all goes well). We usually have a few laughs as the kids water differently thus giving different results. After dinner it’s put in the crèche and kept there to end of the Calendale period (winter celebrations) on February 2nd which is Chandeleur .
The Provencal Créche
Créche is the word used for nativity scene. Here in Provence they are very elaborate and not only depict the scene of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus but also the village life in Provence. Local artisans spend hours creating figurines, houses, windmills, olive trees, miniature costumes and so much more to reproduce scenes of life before cars, computers and iphones. This year I accompanied my son and his school class to a santon fair (santon is the name used for the handcrafted figurines). A young boy was the master behind a rather large crèche he built himself (photo below). In the creche, the kids had to find 12 “misfit” objects. This way, kids and adults, see the details they would otherwise miss. My youngest son’s godfather gives us one santon every year for Christmas. We have so much fun anticipating and adding the new element to our Provencal crèche.
The 13 Desserts
Yes, you heard me right, thirteen desserts. Why? Thirteen to symbolize Christ and the twelve disciples. However, rest assured, these are not thirteen different pies, cakes and éclairs! It’s a beautiful table arranged with clementines, pears, white grapes, dried figs, dried dates, raisins, almonds, walnuts, dark nougat, white nougat, olive oil bread (called pompe à huile) crystalized quince pate and crystalized fruit of all sorts. Some variations include the callisson from Aix-en-Provence, the winter green melon and more and more often, chocolates. Now, I have to be honest. I have not seen all thirteen on the table at one time in a really long time. It seems, for the most part, these are sporadically displayed and eaten during the festive time but rarely eaten traditionally upon returning from midnight masse. Perhaps this is where I am more American and prefer to go to the Protestant church, which has a service at 6pm, to get to bed at a descent time and wake up to a homemade breakfast.
An Extra Seat
Have you ever set your Christmas table for an extra person? My children came home the other day from school talking about Christmas traditions (classroom topic) and were so excited to tell me about the extra setting at the table just in case you meet somebody that doesn’t have a place to go for Christmas. I have read about this tradition in all my research but have never actually seen that extra place at Christmas celebrations. I am embarking on this tradition this year. Maybe you’ll do it with me. The excitement in my kids didn’t leave me indifferent and even if we don’t find the person in need of some brotherly love on Christmas day, the empty seat will encourage us all to reach out when we do see that person in need.
My son dressed up as one of the three kings at our local parish
To mark my 20 years of Christmas in France I should probably do something really Frenchy! Like make my own foie gras!!! Or maybe it’s time to make the traditional Christmas cinnamon rolls because the nostalgia of a Christmas back “home” is growing. Well, home is where the heart is, right? So my heart is here, in Provence, and cherishing the traditions of small villages, local markets, santons, Provencal crèches, and great food.
And you? Where is your heart this year? Perhaps your longing to get away and discover the festive season in another country? Provence won’t let you down. Between chestnuts roasting and crepes flipping at the many local holiday markets, folklore costumes at community events and lower prices with fewer tourist – a Christmas in Provence is a magical way to celebrate.
Santon – The word first appeared at the end of the 19th century, coming from the Provencal language, Santoun, meaning “little saint”. A real santon is made from clay – tradition deriving from Genesis 2:7 “Then the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground”.
Créche – in its origin, refers to the manger (derived from Latin “cripia”) and eventually grew in meaning to refer to the whole stable. Legend says that Francois d’Assise “invented” the first live créche in the 13 century. In France, during the Revolution, it was forbidden to present religious scenes in public. Hence, the development of home créches. As of the last couple years, debate on allowing créches in public spaces (notably the town halls) is producing some heat. Is it a religious practice or a tradition? Some town halls have already stopped the tradition, others prefer to carry on despite the conflicting opinions. It is also interesting to note that the word “créche” is used for day care (ex: My son goes to the crèche”).