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Suds showdown: French soap producers fight over 'true' recipe for famed soap

Soap producers are struggling to agree on a true recipe for Marseille's famed, traditional hard soap.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Tensions are bubbling into what might be the cleanest war in the history of France.

Soap producers are struggling to agree on a true recipe for the southern city of Marseille’s famed, traditional hard soap made from vegetable oils.

According to Agence France-Presse, the dispute began when the Association of Makers of Savon de Marseille (AFSM), led by French cosmetics giant Occitane and a number of other soap makers from the region, filed a bid last October to have the local product be granted a “geographical indication” to distinguish it from cheap Chinese and Turkish imports that have flooded the market.

The designation is usually reserved for food products such as Champagne, Gorgonzola and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The original Marseille soap was made with seawater, olive oil and soda ash, but the AFSM are backing a recipe that will permit for certain additives and perfumes, such as the cheaper palm or copra oil and lavender, to be allowed.

Serge Bruna, a master soap maker at the AFSM, told AFP that the traditional pale green and beige blocks of soap are “not what 90 per cent of consumers want.”

He added that one of the most popular wares at his shop in the Marseille’s Old Port is a soap shaped like a sardine. The soap is scented with lavender oil, which he said for many customers is the “essential odour of savon de Marseille.”

On the other side of the battlefield, four traditional master soap makers from the city, who make the suds from scratch in large cauldrons, want to keep the their artisanal roots pure.

“We are the last to keep the up the traditional know-how,” Marie Bousquet-Fabre, who runs Marius Fabre soapworks with her sister Julie, told AFP.

“We are true soapmakers. We start from the vegetable matter and oil and we transform them by heating them with soda ash in our cauldrons.”

However, even traditionalists now use some palm or copra oil.

The group also has the support of a number of residents of Marseille, who have started a petition on that has more than 120,000 signatures.  It calls for a return to a recipe that was officially recognized in 1688, during the reign of Louis XIC, the Sun King. 

The suggestion that an official recipe could contain additives and ready-made ingredients produced elsewhere has the master soap makers and their supporters frothing, and the discussions between the two groups have deteriorated.

“Talks have broken down, our only communication now is through third parties,” said Bruna.

In response to the dispute, the French government has had to step in and arbitrate the question of the soap’s true ingredients.

The traditionalists and their lobby group, the Union of Professionals of Marseille Soap, also insist that Marseille’s true soap can only be created by the city’s artisans and those from the surrounding area of Bouches-du-Rhone.

Meanwhile, the members of the AFSM come from across southern France.

A public inquiry into the soap’s recipe is set to wrap up next week, but a decision isn’t expected until September.

Sebastien Malangeau, an advisor to the minister of state overseeing commerce Martine Pinville who will make the final call, told AFP that officials need to balance the obligation to promote “quality,” while also opening the GI classification to a “maximum number of people.”

He added that the “most important criteria is the quality” and if the designation is seen as “a marketing gimmick it will die.”