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A French soap opera

Kalpana Sunder | Updated on April 17, 2014

Soap-making arrived from West Asia during the Crusades. Photo: Shutterstock

A soap master will help you handcraft the Savon de Marseille like it has always been made since the Middle Ages in this Mediterranean city

I arrive in Marseille at the cusp of winter, when the frigid mistral winds funnel through the Rhone Valley and chill your bones. Walking down the streets of the Old Port I notice stubby bars of soap sold in all sizes and colours, and soon, discover the workshop-cum-showroom of La Grande Savonnerie in Port Vieux. A place where I learn about the history of the famed local suds and even make my own soap.

“The wind here makes our skin dry, so we have always made soap from olive oil,” said Jean-Baptiste Jaussaud, whose family owns the brand. And informs me that it’s more than just another bar of soap. “If you want to avoid unpleasant night cramps, place a cube of soap at the bottom of your bed; or use it as a moth repellent or an antiseptic. It is also great for doing your laundry.”

The saponification or soap-making process came from West Asia during the Crusades. The archetype of the Marseille soap came from another Mediterranean city — Aleppo in Syria, with its 4,000-year history of soap-making.

Crescas Davin, a local Jew, first made soap in Marseille back in 1371. In times gone by, soap-making was often accompanied by horrible accidents in which ill-fated workers slipped and disappeared into the bubbling vats of soap, says Jaussaud. Since the Middle Ages, it has been made by boiling olive oil and soft soda in water for several hours; this is later hardened and cut into cubes.

Amateur soap-makers thrived in the south of France, a region that had all the raw materials needed — olive oil, salt and ashes from the Camargue, and palm oil and copra from the colonies. Apparently, realising that the amateurs were eating into the soap business, in 1688, King Louis XIV proclaimed in an edict that soap makers ‘could only use virgin olive oil and no other fats’. A significant development for the industry was when French chemist Leblanc discovered how to extract caustic soda from sea salt. By 1930 there were 90 soap factories. However, decades later, the advent of washing machines and chemical detergents sounded the death knell for traditional soaps.

In the 21st century, there is renewed interest in the Savon de Marseille, which is seen as a simple, sustainable and bio-degradable product made by passionate craftsmen in a traditional way. “They are gentle on the skin,” says Jaussaud, “I love the green bars on a string and huge loaves stamped with their weight.”

The soap master, says it takes two weeks to make the Marseille bar. The ingredients bubble in ancient cauldrons for 10 days and then the mixture is poured into pits to harden. Machines turn the malleable pieces of soap into cubes and then stamp them. The soaps are set out to dry in the sun and mistral winds. I try my hand at moulding the soap and stamping it with my name. You can also try making face cream, washing powder or toothpaste, all under the tutelage of a Maitre de Savon or soap master.

Unlike French wines, named only after the place they are produced in, soaps made in other regions can be called Savon de Marseille as long as they are made the same way.

Kalpana Sunder is a Chennai-based travel writer

Published on March 14, 2014

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