Renaissance for French soap-making tradition as virus revives demand

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Amid the rapid spread of the new coronavirus across Europe, the hallmark Marseille tradition of soap-making 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 the Second World War, 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.

Serge Bruna at his family-owned Licorne soap factory in Marseille
Serge Bruna at his family-owned soap factory in Marseille (Daniel Cole/AP)

Melanie Dinot, a retail worker at the Savonnerie de la Licorne in Marseille
Melanie Dinot, a retail worker at the Savonnerie de la Licorne (Daniel Cole/AP)

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.”

The Covid-19 illness causes mild or moderate symptoms in most of those infected, but severe symptoms are more likely in the elderly or people with existing health problems.

The vast majority of those infected recover.

A factory worker cuts soap into bars at the Licorne soap factory in Marseille
A factory worker cuts soap into bars (Daniel Cole/AP)

Discarded bars of soap in a box at the Licorne soap factory in Marseille, southern France
Discarded bars of soap (Daniel Cole/AP)

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.

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