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The 162-Year-Old, 4-Ingredient Soap Beloved Throughout France

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Once upon a time, there were no multinational corporations or globally trademarked brands or automated factories that mass-produced uniform commodities. Instead, there were small workshops overseen by skilled craftsmen who used their generational knowledge to create unique goods. During the 19th century in the Southern French port city of Marseille, these craftsmen were making soap.

Hundreds of small factories throughout Marseille produced all-natural, all-purpose olive oil-based bar soaps; these raw-edged, darkly colored blocks were ubiquitous in French homes for generations, used for laundry and cleaning and bathing. Each bar was stamped with the factory’s icon to indicate the brand: a fountain, a ship, a flower, or a horseshoe with seven nails, as in the case of Fer à Cheval, one of the last remaining true Marseille soap companies. Fer à Cheval means “horseshoe,” and the seven nails symbolize good luck—something this small company has had much of over the years.

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Since the mid-1800s, Fer à Cheval has maintained the same traditional soap-making process, a process that Nathalie Souny, the marketing director for Fer à Cheval, calls “the Marseille method.” And while today their line of soaps has expanded beyond the bar to include liquid soaps, soap flakes for laundry, dishwashing liquid, limescale spray for bathrooms, and their new line of perfumed soaps, their time-honored method is at the heart of everything they make.

The Marseille Method

Fer à Cheval’s five-step, week-long “saponification” begins in their factory’s seven 15-ton cauldrons (which are always cooking at capacity) and ends in their on-site laboratory, where the soap is tested to ensure that it meets the quality and safety regulations for cosmetic products. But the magic of this soap happens in the in-between, in “the Marseille method,” which is overseen by Michel Bianconi, Fer à Cheval’s master soapmaker.

First there is The Mashing, in which he boils together vegetable oil and soda to create an emulsion—the beginning of the soap paste. Then The Cooking, in which he raises the mixture to 120°C and boils it for two days to cook any oil that hasn’t made its way into the paste. These steps are followed by The Wash, in which he adds salt water to the cauldron, causing the soap to rise and any impurities (like excess soda or glycerine) to separate out, and The Rest, in which he decants the soap to further refine the paste. And finally The Elimination, in which he boils the soap in fresh water for a final cleansing. (Even soap needs to be cleaned, sometimes.)

Food52's Buyers Kristina and Jojo among the cauldrons.

Though they’ve got the method down to a science and use their lab to ensure that every product is perfect, this is hardly a robotic process. “This is a critical point in our craftsmanship,” Nathalie tells me, speaking of Michel’s skill and knowledge. “Today in France there is no school to train master soapmakers. He is someone that is very important in the soap factory because he has been trained over the time; he has a precious know-how that has been passed down through generations.”

Michel has been Fer à Cheval’s master soapmaker for 36 years; he started working at the factory when he was just 14 years old, and today he’s training the next generation of master soapmakers in his apprentice Stéphane Bucaro, who has completed four of his five years of training—in fact, Stéphane is the son of the master soapmaker who taught the art to Michel. “When we say it is a know-how that is passed down from generation to generation, it is a reality,” Nathalie says. “And that’s at the heart of our ancestral knowledge.”

Les savonniers de Fer à Cheval, Michel and Stéphane.
Les savonniers de Fer à Cheval, Michel and Stéphane. Photo by Fer à Cheval

Nathalie summarizes the specialized role of the master soapmaker: “He knows how the paste should react. He can recognize the color, the smell, the consistency of the paste. This is based on his own experience and his knowledge that has been built over years.” Michel and Stéphane strive for consistency in their soaps, a task that is more complicated for Fer à Cheval because of the ingredients they work with.

Pure Ingredients

Marseille soap is made from only four ingredients: natural vegetable oil, soda, salt, and fresh water. “That’s all,” Nathalie says proudly. “It’s not an industrial product, it’s not a chemical product like something you can reproduce to perfection.” Which means, practically speaking, that Fer à Cheval’s Marseille soap is pure: It’s hypoallergenic (which means it’s ideal for sensitive skin), biodegradable, and economical.

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It also means that every batch of soap is slightly different. “It depends on the different vegetable oil we receive, it depends on the season, on a lot of criteria,” she explains. “From one production to another you never have 100% the same production and you never have the same color of the soap, or the shape, or the natural fragrance.”

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The natural elements of the soap come through in these sensory ways, from the golden green of the olive oil bar soap to the rich yellow of the palm oil bar soap to the potent aromas they carry. Personally, I like the funky pungency of these soaps, though Nathalie admits that it may be a bit hard at first for an audience that’s used to, say, powder fresh.

“That smell,” she says, “is a guarantee that the soap is natural. Today we are so used to chemical products with chemical fragrances, something that’s very synthetic, and when we go back to something natural we’re not used to it. But it’s actually a criteria for quality.” (She also points out that the soap’s heady aroma doesn’t linger on the skin, instead evaporating into an actually fresh scent.)

Protecting Tradition

It’s this quality that has kept Fer à Cheval in business for 162 years. Mass culture is in a turn toward handcrafted, all-natural products, but Fer à Cheval has been there all along—partly because of the strict regulations that govern French production methods. French government’s historical respect for rules ensuring tradition and craftsmanship in order to maintain a standard of quality (like the 1688 Édit de Colbert, which stated that no animal fats could be included in Marseille soap) has of course played a part in keeping Marseille soap what it is.

But there’s currently no protection or rules governing Marseille soap, which is why, in Nathalie’s estimation, 90% to 95% of Marseille soaps on the market are not authentic. “Right now ‘Marseille soap’ is not protected, so everybody can claim to produce Marseille soap,” she says. “You could have ‘Marseille soap’ coming from China, China being the biggest country to produce and export Marseille soap. These soaps are produced in other regions, or following other process, or including chemical additives.” Not only does this dilute the brand, but it causes confusion for customers seeking authentic Marseille soap.

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"We are steadfast and proud in defending our original Marseille soap recipe," says Raphael Seghin, President of Fer à Cheval. "Our unique process and ingredients are what give Marseille soap its mythic status and unique qualities, and any attempt to change that would diminish its legacy." To maintain the legacy, Fer à Cheval partnered with three other local soap factories to form the Union of Marseille Soap Professionals, which they hope will promote and protect their heritage soapmaking traditions.

According to the Union, in order for a soap to be considered genuine Marseille soap it must meet three criteria:

1. Composition: “We don’t use any chemical additives, we don’t add any color, any chemical fragrance, any chemical preservative, or any animal fat. The composition has to be genuine as it is.”

2. Process: Marseille soap must be “made in the Marseille process—the five step process—in a cauldron and made under the control of a master soapmaker.”

3. Geographic origin: “It has to be produced in Marseille or its region.” With these rules, the Marseille soapmakers hope to preserve their tradition and their product—but the rules haven’t stopped Fer à Cheval from branching out.

Beyond the Bar

Fer à Cheval uses their Marseille soap in all their soap lines, including their home care and laundry soaps. Speaking of these soaps and detergents, Nathalie says, “We try to promote the genuine soap’s benefits through different kinds of application. For example, the liquid soap or the multi-usage spray are very convenient, and have the same benefit in terms of cleaning and degreasing, while at the same time being very mild with the skin, having a formulation that is very mindful of the environment, and minimizing the potential for skin allergies.”

All of Fer à Cheval’s home and laundry soaps have Marseille soap as the base, but have been adapted for wider use. “You want to go back to something that is natural and authentic,” she explains, “but at the same time you don’t want to compromise the comfort of life.”

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Marseille soaps are iconic in France, and they were household staples for generations. “It’s something that always been there,” Nathalie tells me, “something that has always been in the corner of the kitchen or the laundry, something my mom or my grandmother used to use. Today, younger generations are rediscovering the product.” It’s strange to think of this centuries-old product as a discovery, but the truth is, that’s what it feels like. The funky bar soaps, the feathery laundry flakes, the silky dishwashing liquid: using these Marseille-born products feels like the new and the old, the innovative and the conventional, the trendy and the classic all in one gorgeous lathery mix.

What’s your favorite does-everything soap? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: Cleaning, The Shop, Makers