Sweeter than hand sanitizer: handmade French soaps get a boost

Traditional Marseille soapmakers are enjoying a resurgence of interest in their product as hand sanitizers are getting harder to find across Europe. Each bar is crafted by hand using an abundance of local oils, soda, and salt.

Daniel Cole/AP
Melanie Dinot, a worker at the Savonnerie de la Licorne, in Marseille, southern France, on March 17, 2020. Traditional French soapmakers are responding to meet the high European demand for soap amid the global pandemic.

Amid the rapid spread of the new coronavirus across Europe, the hallmark Marseille tradition of soapmaking is enjoying a renaissance, as the French rediscover an essential local product.

Serge Bruna's grandfather entered the then-booming business in the southern port city more than a century ago. His father followed suit, although the family enterprise was requisitioned during World War II, when soap was considered an essential commodity.

Today, Mr. Bruna sells soap from the same shopfront on Marseille's Old Port – wearing a sanitary mask and skintight gloves.

"Even though we work in a factory full of virus-repellent soap, it is good to take precautions," he said.

Mr. Bruna's Savonnerie de la Licorne, which runs four soap shops on the Old Port, a museum, and a small factory in the heart of Marseille, has seen its shop sales increase 30% and delivery orders quadruple since Italy declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus.

"We had fewer tourists or none at all in our stores," he said. "On the other hand, [Marseille residents] were much more frequent visitors and some even came to stockpile."

As the public rushed to buy supplies to last during a looming quarantine, Mr. Bruna and his artisans continued making soap by hand, filling the port-view shops as well as boxes destined for export.

BFMTV, a French news outlet, reported on the surge of demand for traditional French soap as hand sanitizer is running out. 

During these unusual conditions, soapmakers have to adapt to meet the demand as well as they can. The Savonnerie Fer à cheval, the oldest soap factory in Marseille, strengthened its teams to support the production while its online sales went from 2,500 to 5,000 euros a day. 

The Savonnerie Fer à cheval provided 5,000 soaps to Marseille’s naval firefighters and contacted the World Health Organization as well as the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health to offer help. 

“We will keep going as long as the chain of supply doesn’t stop. We are here, we’re holding on. We will do everything in our power to supply as many people as possible,” Raphaël Seghin, president of the Savonnerie Fer à cheval, the oldest soap factory in Marseille, said. 

With an abundance of local oils, soda, and salt, Marseille boasts a lengthy tradition of producing the natural soaps once prized throughout Europe. But only a handful of businesses are still active.

Since French shops were ordered closed this week as a public health precaution, the Savonnerie de la Licorne now only carries out deliveries, supplying pharmacies across France and handling individual orders made online.

"I'm not sure that making our soaps is more important than before, but I would say that people who have lost the habit of using Marseille soap have all of a sudden rediscovered its properties," he said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Material from BFMTV was used in this report.

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