Jan 6, 2017

In a Lather About Lather: Le Causse Méjean


The city of Aleppo's good name has been dragged through the mud recently, which is ironic because this formerly-beautiful city is closely connection with something that cleans mud really well. It's where one of the sweetest-smelling, cleanest French traditions arose: savon de Marseille, or Marseille soap. This French classic is based on Aleppo soap, an ancient tradition of olive oil, laurels, water, and ash.

After the Crusades, the Syrian tradition was brought back via the Mediterranean to Marseille, where, during the Middle Ages, it became Frenchified, with the addition of lime powder. In the 1500s, Marseille became an important port, receiving products from the colonies, like palm and copra oil that also grew to be used in versions of the soap. In 1688, the production of soap was regulated under an edict from King Louis XIV. Despite the general fear of baths during Louis's time, he himself was something of a clean freak, who changed clothing often, bathed frequently, and even rubbed alcohol on himself as a disinfectant.

For most of history, savon de Marseille has not been the high-end, hipster beauty product it is today, but rather a simple work-horse. Savon de Marseille was originally more of a detergent, used for clothes, than for the body. In fact, it cleans just about everything. Even today, there is always a block of savon de Marseille in my painting class, and we rub our oil brushes on it, with hot water, to get them clean.

If you ever have a stain on anything and ask a French person for advice, I'll lay good money on them telling you the solution involves savon de Marseille.

Having said that, it's sometimes difficult to know what savon de Marseille actually is, because the process and ingredients aren't currently protected and regulated, as with wines or cheeses, to define the "real" thing.

There's a saying that there are two sides to every story, but this story seems to have three: On one side, traditional soapmakers in Marseille banded together recently and asked the French government to provide a label of authenticity for the traditional recipe once certified by Louis XIV that results in the olive green, odorless soap cubes.

The other side, with a dozen larger manufacturers and exporters (including the famous store L'Occitane), wants the label of authenticity for more "modernized" versions of the soap, allowing for less expensive vegetable oils and additives that results in a rainbow of colors and fragrances.

The only thing both of these sides agree on is that they would like some sort of "Protected Geographical Indication" that would stymie the third side: cheap Asian knock-offs. The French want to prohibit the Asian use of animal fats in their production, instead of vegetable oils like traditional Marseille soap. Also, they use modern manufacturing methods and don't follow the same 10-day, 4-step traditional manufacturing process as the savon de Marseille.

La Maison du Savon de Marseille, a boutique that can be found in the Marais, and in nearly 20 other boutiques around France (with over 200 points of sale throughout the world), sells over 250 kinds of soap, many of them with fragrances that come from nearby Grasse, the perfume/fragrance capital of the world. These are made in the French way, with vegetable oils (often argan or olive), yet they have clearly branched out from the traditional, odorless green cube.

THE CHEESE: Le Causse Méjean

Le Causse Méjean is a farmhouse cheese made from raw sheeps' milk in the department of Lozere, and more specifically in the Causse Méjean, a vaste plateau (nearly 340km²) that's the highest of the plateaus in the Grands Causses. If you look at  the sign in the photo, it's written as Le Causses Mejean (with a plural S on the word "causse") but I'm assuming that's just bad French grammar, as the area itself is just one causse among the many Grands Causses.

It's a lovely sheep cheese -- creamy, buttery, and silky. The flavor is equally lovely, with great hints of grass, flowers, not too much (or too little) salt, and sweet cream.


Le Causses Méjean is a thick slab of white -- practically a cube. So, right away, I think the photos of the cheese resemble the photos of the traditional savon de Marseille in cube form. The real cheese is actually twice as long, more the shape of the brick-shaped modern savon de Marseille. Unlike the soap, which hails from the southern tip of France, the Pierre Blanche hails from the very north.

Are these women making cheese? Or soap? It's hard to tell. (For the record, they're making cheese.)


There are white-colored soaps from La Maison du Savon de Marseilles, many of them in fact: coconut, Oriental desert, Floral amber, gardenia, acacia, lily of the valley, cotton flower, mama (I assume this is for mama, not smelling of mama), honeysuckle, fleur de lys, white musk, and my favorite: ass milk. That's not milk from your ass, it's milk from an ass, as in a donkey. And yes, it sounds better in French (Lait d'Anesse).  Oddly, vanilla soap is brown. So this clean, white Le Causses Méjean goes well with the soap story, even though a) you would never want a soap that smelled like this cheese and b) this cheese should not be used to clean your body, clothes, or home in any way.


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