The town of Salon-de-Provence used to be very prosperous, thanks to the commerce of oil, coffee and soap. The great quantity of raw materials in Provence (olive oil in the Alpilles, soda and salt in the Camargue and oils (coco-nut and palm) coming in from the colonies via the port of Marseille) had led to the development of the soap-making industry.
The famous Savon (soap) de Marseille: you can see it everywhere during your Provence tour –in the markets, small boutiques, on the shelves at local grocery stores…Like so many aspects of Provence life, this soap was used for hundreds of years and still continues to live on.
Marseille soap or Savon de Marseille is a traditional soap made around Marseille from vegetable oils. The first known soapmaker in the place was recorded around 1370. By 1688, Louis XIV introduced regulations (Edict of Colbert) limiting the use of the name savon de Marseille to soaps made in and around the Marseille area, and only from olive oil. Today this law still applies, although the regulations now allow other vegetable oils to be used.
How it is made
Traditionally, the soap is made by mixing sea water from the Mediterranean Sea, olive oil, and the alkaline chemicals soda ash (sodium carbonate) and lye (sodium hydroxide) together in a large cauldron (usually making about 8 tons). This mixture is then heated for several days, stirred constantly. The blend is then allowed to sit and, once ready, it is poured into a mold, and allowed to set slightly. Whilst still soft, it is cut into bars and stamped, and left to finish harden. The whole process can take up to a month from the start before the soap is ready to use.
The lavender blooms from June to August in Provence, mainly in the Luberon area, but also around the Mont-Ventoux and in the region of Sault and Valréas, where the famous village of Gordes dominates the purple fields; such amazing scenery, color, texture and scent of lavender is part of the essence of Provence. You can enjoy a Provence tour of the lavender fields by car, by bike or on foot.
The most famous lavender shot in Provence is certainly of the field in front of Senanque Abbey near Gordes. It is almost impossible not to get a memorable photo here.
Apart from gazing at lavender fields, you can also visit lavender farms and distilleries, attend lavender festivals at Sault and Valreas, and buy lavender products like oil, essences, perfumes, soap, etc. There is even a Lavender Museum in Coustellet explaining the history of the cultivation of lavender in Provence.
It’s been a long time that this lavender is used to make cosmetics and soap; it is also part of the Provençal cuisine and lavender honey and lavender sorbets are worth a taste!
Olive trees were planted by the Greeks when they settled in Provence around 600 BC. The trees developed very well in the dry, stony, limestone soil and avoid erosion.
In lots of museum of Provence you can find the traces of the ancient exploitation of olive trees, through object like amphorae, large pottery oil and wine containers. Olive trees were great for the cattle to munch on their leaves and to supplement the diet of the settlers.
Five hundred years ago, olive groves covered twice as much land as they do today. France is far behind the production of Italy and Spain today, but keeps planting a lot of new olive trees every year, and has double the production since the 1990s.
A new generation of oil producers has moved into Provence. They are now small-scale local growers, bringing modernity to the old tradition and producing gastronomic oil. A tour of Provence olive oils would seem like a wine tour as The specialist talks about it as if they were discussing about wine! Oil can have notes of green apples, almond, artichokes or chocolate!
Almost 90% of the olive oil bought in France is the cheap one from Italy and Spain, and it is used in everyday cooking, but gourmets choose the finer oils like the ones from Provence in fancy bottles. The Provençale olive oil is a limited crop, diverse and distinctive and not easy to find outside the region.