Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Making of Marseilles Soap - A Traditional Process that has Stood the Test of Time

By Marie-Helene Blackmore

Did you know that genuine Marseilles Soap is still made today in the same traditional way as it was centuries ago?

Marseilles Harbour
Marseilles Harbour

Pasting (empâtage)
   In the cauldrons of the soap factory, the master soap-maker prepares two types of soap: white and green.  The former consists of coconut and palm oils, the latter of mostly olive oil and, in smaller quantity, other vegetable oils such as coconut and palm. The master soap-maker closely monitors the cauldrons where the soap is cooking (one for the white soap, the other for the green).

Preparation of the alkali solution that will be added to the vegetable oils.
The pasting (l'empâtage) is the first step in the process of traditional soap making. Vegetable oil and alkali are mixed and heated until it has the consistency of a paste

   The vegetable oils is mixed with an alcali (generally it will be sodium hydroxyde). Sea salt is then added.  The mixture is first boiled by steam circulating in a coiled tube at the bottom of the cauldron.  Through chemical reaction, the alkali transforms the mixture into a paste and the salt purifies it.  This takes about eight hours. 
Cooking and Washing (cuisson et lavage)
   Cooking involves boiling the paste for four hours at approximately one hundred degrees while frequently removing the used alkali (a process called "épinage").  A series of washes then begins.  Salt water is sprayed over the top of the paste.  The water being heavier than the soap paste, it sinks to the bottom of the vessel, taking the impurities with it in its fall.

To reach the boiling point faster, the cauldrons are heated with steam. 
The last step of the Marseilles Process (procédé marseillais) is the liquifying (liquidation) - the soap paste is rinsed with water to remove impurities and achieve its 'Extra Pure' status.

   This step requires continual vigilance on the part of the Master Soap-maker: the paste can boil over at any time.  That's when he has to stir the paste with a long paddle to prevent this.

   Finally, the master soap-maker checks to see whether his soap is ready by putting a drop of soap on his tongue. If it tastes sweet he can proceed to the next step, if not, the paste needs to be washed again. Once this process has been successfully completed, the master soap-maker covers the cauldron and lets the paste rest for thirty-six hours.

Pouring into the Moulding Tanks
While the soap paste is resting, the soap-makers are busy on the floor below preparing the huge rectangular pouring tanks which will be filled according to the amount required to meet the orders.  They powder the tanks with talcum and line their walls with paper. Pipes connecting the bottom of the cauldron to the tanks are then meticulously positionned over the tanks.

   In order to be certain that the pipes have been correctly installed, a soap-maker turns on the tap, slowly at first, to release the liquid paste which is still warm (60°).  Using a trowel and some of the paste, he also takes this opportunity to seal down the paper bordering the edge of the detachable plank of each tank.  This operation ensures that each tank is leak-proof.

   He then turns the tap on full, for the liquid paste to be released more rapidly into the tank.  It looks strangely like molten lava.  The soap paste is filtered at the pipe outlets as it enters the tank, to remove remaining impurities.  When the tanks are full the tap is turned off.  The soap-maker levels the surface of the hot liquid soap with a smoothing tool (a kind of long-handled spatula).  The soap then dries for approximately forty-eight hours.  It cools down and gradually hardens.

   A large number of equal rectangles are traced out with a soap maker's compass on the surface of the hardened soap.  The soap is then cut up into six-sided blocks with parallel surfaces, and taken out of the tanks using either a wooden shovel or by suction. piled onto trucks by the soap-makers.  It is taken to an automatic square-edge cutting machine set with evenly spaced steel wires.  The blocks are mechanically pushed through the wires in order to obtain bars first, then cubes or rectangles of soap, depending on the nature of the orders.

After eight to ten days resting in the moulding tanks, the soap paste is cut into large blocks.

The blocks are then cut with a wire into smaller bars and cubes.

   These cubes or rectangles of soap are stacked evenly on wooden racks with a space between each soap.  The racks themselves are placed on trolleys which are then exposed to the mistral wind to speed up the drying process.  Approximately ten days, or even a fortnight, are necessary to dry a thickness of about one centimetre of soap.

Stamping (Estampillage)
   The last step entails marking the soap (stamping on the name or brand) before it is sold.  With a regular, automatic gesture, the soap-maker places each block of soap in the centre of a soap press mould which, as it closes, prints at once the six faces of the block of soap with mandatory information such as the soap-maker logo, the ingredients, weight…  Alternatively, the soap-maker will hand stamp each of the six faces of the block with a heavy hand-held brass stamp.

   As we have just seen, the creation of an authentic block of Marseilles soap requires numerous manual operations. This three centuries-old process seems to have stood the test of time at the last remaining traditional soap factories such as Savonneries Le Sérail and Marius Fabre.

Photos: ©Marie-Helene Blackmore
Images: ©Louis Figuier, Les Merveilles de l'industrie ou Description des principales industries modernes - Furne, Jouvet (Paris) - 1873-1877

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