French guidebooks often highlight local specialties, be it an Orléanais crayfish flan or Alsatian elderflower wine. That’s how I discovered the Provencal soap maker Marius Fabre. While fantasizing of a vacation, I leafed through a book on the South of France and spotted a mention of Savon de Marseille, Marseille soap, produced according to traditional methods. Duly noted, Marius Fabre went onto my list of things to try.
Ever since I made my own scented soap as a first year perfumery trainee, I’ve been fascinated by the transformation that happens when fats, lye and perfume come together. One wrong ingredient, and a bar of snow white soap turns dirty yellow. One more mistake–and the whole thing smells rancid, rather than delicious. So, when I stood with my nose pressed against a creamy bar of Marius Fabre’s jasmine soap, I knew that I had discovered something special.
Marius Fabre was founded in 1900, and it still remains a family business based in Salon de Provence. The term “Savon de Marseille” refers to a specific manufacturing method in open-air cauldrons. In the 17th century, it meant soaps made in and around the Marseille area and only from olive oil, but today the regulations allow other vegetable fats as well. Whatever the open-air cauldron process accomplishes–I’m told that it takes 14 days to make soap the traditional way, I can only judge the quality based on scents, textures and the way my skin feels.
First of all, the fragrances are incredible–strong and heady. If I close my eyes as I hold the Jasmin soap, I imagine myself standing under a blooming jasmine vine. The flower scented bar was only rivaled by Santal, which smelled exactly like a pile of Mysore sandalwood shavings (dried roses and scalded milk). I also tried spicy and green Coriander, candy-like Violette, and bracing Lavande. Another surprise was Miel de Bruyère, heather honey; it reminded me of sun-warmed honeycombs.
In the shower, the soaps created a thick, creamy lather, which dissolved completely and left no greasy residue. On the other hand, my skin, much abused by the hard water in Brussels, felt silky and soft. And strongly perfumed. When I had to test fragrances later that morning, I was told that my skin was “contaminated”–it still smelled of apricots and jasmine (though in most situations, this would be a good thing).
Also consider storing a bar in your linen closet. Unopened Sandalwood still smells of creamy woods 6 months later, and I love that my towels and bedding have absorbed this sweet, warm aroma.
I don’t have to travel to Provence to find Marius Fabre’s products, since they are easy enough to buy both at natural food stores and online, but I would love to return and take a guided tour of the production workshops. A visit to its Musée du Savon de Marseille, which has the distinction of being the only soap museum in France, sounds like another quirky and fun activity.
Marius Fabre soaps are available directly at marius-fabre.com, amazon.com, thefrenchybee.com, and various natural food stores. In Paris, you can also find them at Galeries Lafayette and Grande Epicerie de Paris. $13/14oz bar
Extra: Olive Oil Source features an interesting article with photos on how Marius Fabre soaps are made.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin