French soap makers in a lather over traditional Marseille recipe with olive oil

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It is as French as baguette, and as emblematic of the country’s southern Provence region as lavender fields and cicadas. But a dispute over the “official” recipe for the region’s famed traditional soap, “savon de Marseille“, has producers in a froth.

With cheap Chinese and Turkish soaps flooding the market, manufacturers want Marseille soap to be granted a “geographical indication” (GI) so consumers can tell the difference between the real thing and cheap imports.

But a dispute over how “true Marseille soap” should be made has the producers themselves at each others’ throats.

In one camp are a dozen soapmakers from across the southeast of France led by the cosmetics giant Occitane who have formed the Association of Makers of Savon de Marseille (AFSM).

It was they who filed the bid in October to have the soap recognised as a GI, a designation which already protects many French wines and cheeses.

In the other corner are four die-hard traditionalists, master soapmakers from the Marseille area itself who want to bring the product back to its artisanal roots.

Their supporters in the Mediterranean city started a petition on change.org that has gotten more than 123,000 signatures to back their demand for a return to something closer to the original recipe, first officialised under the “Sun King” Louis XIV in 1688.

But relations between the two camps are so bad now that the French state is having to arbitrate the vexed question of the soap’s “official” make-up.

“Talks have broken down, our only communication now is through third parties,” said Serge Bruna of the more industrial AFSM.

While they are pushing for the norms for a “traditional savon de Marseille” to be based on vegetable oil and soda ash, they also want certain additives and perfumes to be allowed.

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