Soap can be purchased anywhere in the world, even le savon from the South of France. Many shops carry it, many grocery stores carry it. But there is nothing like being in a street market in Provence, with tables full of various brand names and the plentiful aromas of Savon de Provence. Such was my fun when I arrived at the brocante in the Place de Verdun in front of the Palais du Justice on my last morning in Aix-en-Provence.
Even the plainest soap of them all, l’Extra Pur 72% a’Huile, smells of the land and the oil that it is made from. French law requires that any soap called Marseille be made from a minimum of 72% vegetable oil. Now made primarily with local olive oil, or the more gentle and lighter palm oil, this soap has gone through many incarnations since it was first created during Gallic times, when it was made with beechwood ash and goat tallow. In the Middle Ages the soap producers began using olive oil and with a lot of experimentation, along with adherence to tradition, the soap developed into the fine product it is today.
The Marseille Olive Oil soap is truly multipurpose – it can be used as a baby soap, as a stain-fighter in the laundry, for shaving, and as a kitchen soap. I wouldn’t wash my hair with it though, unless I was bald.
In the markets of Provence they don’t wrap the soaps in cellophane, so it is possible to pick them up and smell them. Always experimenting with new scents and new combinations of herbs and flowers, it is also quite possible to find one whose scent is totally unfamiliar. My favorite will always be the Pré de Provence brand scented with the earthy but citrusy lemon verbena, but I also love the ones that are scented lavender (who could not love lavende?), peppermint/rosemary, sandalwood, patchouli, green tea and … every morning when I use one of these soaps in the shower, I am immediately returned to my days in Provence.
From French to English
Aix: Short for Aix-en-Provence, the name of the town where Cezanne lived most of his life. Pronounced like a cross between ‘Ex’ and ‘Axe’.
en-Provence: in the region of Provence. Provence is a region that includes the departments of Alpes de Haute Provence, Bouches du Rhone and the Vaucluse.
le savon: soap
Savon de Provence: Soap of Provence
la brocante: antiques market : In Aix there are also come crafts at the antiques market
Marseille: can mean the town of Marseille, or the Savon de Marseille which is a particular soap company in the town of Marseille, or, it can mean the method in which the soap was made.