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Renaissance for French soap-making tradition as virus revives demand

Serge Bruna’s grandfather entered the then-booming business in the southern port city more than a century ago.

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Julie Dinot wears a mask as she attends to customers at the Savonnerie de la Licorne shop in Marseille (Daniel Cole/AP)

Julie Dinot wears a mask as she attends to customers at the Savonnerie de la Licorne shop in Marseille (Daniel Cole/AP)

Julie Dinot wears a mask as she attends to customers at the Savonnerie de la Licorne shop in Marseille (Daniel Cole/AP)

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)

Serge Bruna, right, and soap artisans cut bars of soap at the Licorne soap factory in Marseille
Mr Bruna, right, and soap artisans cut bars of soap at the factory (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)

“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.”

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)

A factory worker wears a mask as he attends to a customer at the Licorne soap factory in Marseille, southern France
A factory worker wears a mask as he attends to a customer (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)

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.

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.

PA