French Icon: Savon de Marseille

Scented Marseille soap is emblematic of Provence - GettyImages Hans-Martens

Scented Marseille soap is emblematic of Provence - GettyImages Hans-Martens - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

A colourful, scented French icon that you’ll find in many a market in France, Savon de Marseille is a world-famous cream and olive soap.

Due to its position on the Mediterranean, the copious amount of olive oil, sea water and seaweed made Marseille a centre for production of a popular commodity in the 12th century, soap. It is said that by the 15th century, the area of Marseille was supplying the rest of France with soap. In 1688 the Edict of Colbert was passed by Louis XIV, protecting the makers of the Savon de Marseille from the influx of cheaper products that came with the increasing demand by stating that soap must be made using only vegetable oils. Each manufacturer had their own stamp for their blocks of soap, and in 1913 it is estimated that 180,000 tonnes were produced – at the peak of its popularity before its decline due to the rise of synthetic detergents.

Contrary to belief, the soap does not have to be produced in Marseille to earn the name – it is not a case of appellation d’origine contrôlée (when the manufacture of a product is geographically limited or protected, such as Roquefort cheese, Champagne or Corsican honey). It is rather the manufacturing process that is the decider, with a minimum content of fatty acids and use of vegetable oils. For this reason, China and Turkey are believed to be the biggest manufacturers of Marseille soap today.

However, there are three traditional factories that still exist in Marseille today, with factory visits available, and the iconic soap bars are stacked high at markets in a variety of colourful choices. An emblem of Marseille that is increasing in popularity due to environmental concerns and its humble eco-friendly and 100% natural composition, Savon de Marseille is an enduring French icon that many choose to give as gifts or bring home as a souvenir of their time in Provence.

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