Soaps made in traditional fashion and within the city limits of Marseille, France, are the only ones allowed by French law to use the coveted name: Savon de Marseille. What makes this simple, mild soap so special? Why is it favored in exclusive boutiques and salons in the U.S. and Europe? Recently I went in search of the answer in Marseille itself. On La Canabiére, the city’s main boulevard, La Savonnerie Marseillaise is a shop with all manner of soaps, including the pure Savon de Marseille. It’s a little museum, as well, with displays of the history of the products and how they’re made.
It takes about two weeks for the soap-master to make the traditional soap, mixing olive oil, Mediterranean sea water, soda ash, and lye. The hot mixture is stirred constantly for several days, then poured from the cauldron into a mold and allowed to set. Before it’s completely hard, the soap is cut into bars or blocks and stamped. It’s been made this way for centuries. In 1688, when he wasn’t busy declaring war on various neighbors, King Louis XIV set out rules governing the name and ingredients of genuine Savon de Marseille. The soap could only be made from at least 50% olive oil (It’s often seen now as 72% olive oil), which makes a green color. That’s still the law, though now palm oil, which makes a white soap, and sometimes other vegetable oils are used. You can get scents and various colors—rose, lavender, vanilla, lily of the valley–but they’re variations on the true, classic Savon de Marseille.
In the early 20th century dozens of soap factories were active in Marseille and the region. Today there are only a few. It’s more expensive than mass-market soaps, but those in the know say it’s well worth it. The pure stuff is hypo-allergenic and has no perfumes or additives. Some cosmetic companies buy “noodles” of soap, strips that haven’t hardened, which they can package and sell as Savon de Marseille while adding their own brand.
The soap is not only easy on the skin, it’s said to have other useful properties: it can clean stains from clothing, shine jewelry, repel moths, clean leather and hair brushes, polish floors (really? I’ll have to test that one), and lather skin for shaving. The unscented, pure Savon has a unique aroma, one I have a hard time describing. Olive orchards, maybe. Or just Marseille itself, and the Mediterranean.
One of the few factories left where this famous soap is made is Savonnerie de la Licorne, in the heart of Marseille. La Licorne is open to the public all year, and guided tours are free.
If you are planning a trip to Marseille, be sure to check out our recommendations for Where to Stay in Marseille.
Written by and Photos by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com