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E - 55 : Soap and the Mediterranean

Am re-stocking the villa here with soap, shampoos and bodywash and marvel about Savon de Marseille’s and L’Occitane’s marketing skills. These two companies just know how to sell. You get a perfectly mild , olive-based product, plus the feeling of taking your shower or bath

in the middle of a Provence garden. You can smell it! Clever people!

Made me wonder why the French are so dominant in this industry. To make a batch of olive soap takes 500 Grams of olive oil, 187 Grams of Water and 67 Grams of Soda. Given that Turkey, Greece, Tunisia, Spain and the South of Italy produce most of the Mediterranean’s olive oil and also its best, why is the soap industry not located somewhere along the route we are going to sail this summer? Olive oil is not only the most voluminous ingredient, but also the most expensive. Soda is cheap and water is free.

Soap made from olive oil is one of the finest and purest soaps

People know about soap for more than 5’000 years and probably discovered how it is made when accidentally oil or animal fat mixed with ash during sacrifices. It was always a luxury product for the elite but during Roman times it came into wider use. Naples and Spain were well known for the fine soaps they made. It was distributed throughout the Empire. We know that long-distance trade collapsed with the fall of the Rome in 476 AD and with it the soap industry.

Israeli archeologists discovered this Arab soap factory from 800 AD in the Negev desert

But why was soap production not taken up by the Arabs who brought so much new culture to Europe when they conquered Spain and Sicily? We know from other places that Arabs were excellent soap makers. But soap is not mentiod in any research paper I read on Sicily, Puglia, or Calabria nor in any tourist prospect. It is possible that there was not enough demand from the “uncivilized” Europeans? We know quite a lot about the unsavoury smells of big medieval towns…

Soap was expensive though and this is probably the reason why there was no big market. The expensive part of soap making until 200 years ago was actually not the olive oil but getting sufficient supply of soda. The only source of soda was ash from hard wood grown on sodium rich soils. A few oaks and cedars tolerate salty soils as do shrubs and pea plants.

Soap is a long organic molecular chain attached to negatively charged Carbon TriOxide - illustration from Wikipedia

Soap is a fatty acid made from mixing oils with a base, usually washing soda (Na2CO3), an inorganic, water-soluble crystal. When mixed with water, it dissolves in an exothermic reaction. Na2CO3 can be extracted from plants growing on sodium rich soils. Most of the Mediterranean's rocks are alkaline however - they are the sediments from the floor of the former Tethys Ocean. Sodium soil is thus rare and Sodium was always difficult to obtain.

Geological map of Europe - the light colours are sedimentary rocks - usually limestones

Soap production was thus local – there was always a little bit of ash that could be scrapped together but not enough for a large production. There was one place in Europe though where this general statement is incorrect – where the Alps meet the Mediterranean and granites push to the surface – the Provence. Here we find sodium rich soils, plenty of olive oil, fresh water from the glaciers plus many wild flowers whose scent can be condensed into fragrance. Of course, no proud French person would ever admit that their perfume industry is anything else but the result of the French genius. We have to give them credit though for having discovered that they had all the ingredients it takes.

The Provencal town of Grasse which is at the heart of the French perfume industry

Olive oil makes the mildest soap and the floral scents from Grasse makes the best smelling soaps. Combine them and you have a winner. There is no explanation needed why these soaps conquered the world in the 17th & 18th century. Hold a block of Savon de Marseille in your hand and you will get it.

The long line of soap molecules cluster and attract water on the outside and fat inside. They thus can remove grease from our bodies and clothes during washing - from Wikipedia

I do not know when people found out that soap also has antibacterial & antiviral properties. The soap's fatty acid molecules mess with the surface of microorganism - one of the reasons why we all rediscovered hand washing during Covid-19. Maybe it happened with the scientific revolution in the early 19th century when French chemist discovered a chemical reaction that converted salts into soda and solved the sodium shortage. Henceforth soap could be produced on an industrial scale. Location did not matter any longer.

We use soap today without thinking about it – the product has become part of our life. It makes as cleaner, healthier and happier – and we definitely smell better.

If you want to make your own soap, watch the video below on YouTube – it is good fun!

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