You probably guessed it - this small block is the legendary savon de Marseille!
Savon de Marseille (Marseille Soap) as we know it today is the result of several transformations over the centuries. The precise origin of soap is uncertain, and several countries and regions compete for its invention.
As early as the third millennium BC, the Egyptians were rubbing themselves with a paste of natron mixed with animal fat. Babylonian texts dating back over two thousand years before our era describe the saponification of a mixture of ash, water and cassia oil. Two millennia later, Pliny the Elder in his Natural History mentions the use amongst the Gauls and the Germans of a soft soap, made from goat tallow and beech ash, as ointment to color the hair. It was at the same time (the 1st century AD) that the Italians would have derived their sapo from this soap.
In the Middle Ages, when Gaul became France, the use and manufacture of soap stagnated. On the other hand, across the Mediterranean, Arab soap makers continued to advance the industry and produced a hard soap. This hard soap arrived in France with the Crusades.
Marseille at this time enjoyed an ideal location thanks to its port. From the 15th Century onwards, Marseille soap factories were in full swing, moving from artisanal production to commercial production for export. All the raw ingredients were available in Provence - the olive oil from the Marseille basin, the salt and the ashes of glasswort from the Camargue and later copra and palm oil from the colonies.
|Marseille Harbour © Louis Figuier, Les Merveilles de l'industrie ou Description des principales industries modernes - Furne, Jouvet (Paris) - 1873-1877|
The formula of the savon de Marseille was regulated in the 17th Century under King Louis XIV. In 1688, Colbert introduced an edict restricting the use of the name ‘savon de Marseille’ to soap made of olive oil in the region of Marseille, and made according to a specific process, which included the cooking in a cauldron and the pouring of the soap paste on the ground. Nowaday, the regulation allows other vegetable oils to be used.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were approximately 90 soap factories in the city of Marseille. After 1950, the rise of synthetic detergents saw the decline of pure soap, and several traditional soap factories had to close their doors.
Today, only a handful of regional manufacturers continue to make genuine savon de Marseille in the respect of the ancestral regulations. Among them, four soap factories including the Savonnerie Marius Fabre and the Savonnerie Le Sérail have created an association which is fighting to protect the name ‘savon de Marseille’ against imitations.
Indeed, contrary to its name, savon de Marseille is not necessarily made in Marseille and despite the edict of 1688, it has no protected status. Several so-called ‘savons de Marseille’ are often manufactured abroad* and not in Provence. They may contain animal fats and chemicals such as dyes, preservatives and fragrances.
How can you then make sure that the savon de Marseille that you buy is a genuine savon de Marseille? (i.e. made in Marseille and the surrounding region with local ingredients, according to the traditional method and cooked in a cauldron.) Authentic savon de Marseille contains exclusively vegetable oils, without perfume, dye or conservative. The '72 %' stamp is one of the features of the savon de Marseille and makes reference to its composition: 72% of vegetable oils and 28% humidity. Its oil content increases as the soap dries and the water evaporates.
Among the most ancient soap factories which perpetuates the tradition are the Savonnerie Le Sérail, the Savonnerie du Fer à Cheval and the Savonnerie du Midi in Marseille, and in Salon-de-Provence the Savonnerie Marius Fabre and the Savonnerie Rampal-Latour.
For a truly authentic French experience, the real savon de Marseille is available in Australia at Savons d’ailleurs, a business based on the Sunshine Coast. "We strive to offer you authentic products made in respect of the tradition. In our eBoutique you can find real savon de Marseille, still manufactured today as it was yersteryear by Le Sérail, Marius Fabre and Rampal-Latour."
|Savonnerie Marius Fabre in Salon-de-Provence, France|
|Aurthentic Savon de Marseille from Savonnerie Le Sérail in Marseille, France|
*: China and Turkey, as well as Tunisia, Italy and Malaysia (where only the cooking process is enforced) are very large producers of so-called ‘savon de Marseille’. Soap makers from these countries also provide the raw soap noodles to some French soap factories that merely finish the process – molding, stamping and wrapping of their said ‘savon de Marseille’.
Boulanger Patrick, Le Savon de Marseille, édition Équinoxe, 2002
Duplessis Bernard et Rozet Franck, Les savons de Marseille, édition Édisud, 2007
Périer François, Le Savon de Marseille - secrets et vertus, éditions Grancher, 2010
Union des Professionnels du Savon de Marseille, Dossier de presse, Juin 2012