24th June 2017
Lunch followed by visit to Martin de Candre Soap Factory

Twenty-five members and friends gathered on a beautiful summer day at the Domaine de Mestré for lunch and a visit to the Martin de Candre soap factory.

The Domaine is in a lovely setting just outside Fontevraud-l’Abbaye. Built beside an old Roman road, Mestré was once the main farm of the famous Abbey. Part of the buildings, including a chapel, date from the 12th and 13th centuries. The Domaine has been in the same family since 1791 and inside the hotel, photos and paintings testify to this long family history. Today, two sisters share the workload: the hotel is run by one, the hand crafted soap business by the other.

We had lunch outside in the sunshine under parasols at tables arranged such that groups of 12 could talk with ease. The meal was excellent and so were the surroundings. The family atmosphere was all pervasive, with the current owner’s children serving and replenishing the bread baskets. During a leisurely lunch we had time to appreciate the park and lovely trees before making our way through the hotel to the courtyard to meet our guide.

We were taken into the shop where our guide, the son-in-law of the founder of the factory, recounted the history of the company which was established in 1974. He spoke in particular about the years of research it took for his mother-in-law, Rosine Dauge, to perfect the process still used today to produce high quality soap from natural oils.

All Martin de Candre soaps contain olive oil. In addition, other oils are used to give different qualities to soap. For example, coconut oil produces good lather, whilst palm oil makes soap hard. The oils are heated in tanks and when they reach 65º a solution of soda and water is added to produce hard, strong soap. Simple! Not really. It can be quite dangerous. As it is heated, the mixture becomes harder and thicker. If the reaction takes place too quickly, the mixture can overflow at around 95º. Room temperature and humidity play a huge part. As these vary according to the seasons and the weather, it is said that it takes ten years’ experience to become a good soap maker. The whole process takes around 45 minutes and at just the right moment, other ingredients like honey or milk, perfumes and preserving agents are added. There are no chemicals used in the process and no colouring. This explains why the rose scented soap isn’t pink and the lavender scented soap isn’t mauve. The soap is tipped into a mould and after 24 hours is cut and smoothed and then placed in wooden boxes to harden for between 3 and 8 months. Every stage is done by hand.

Having gained a better understanding of the process used to make soap, we visited the museum dedicated to publicity surrounding soap and many of us were transported back to childhood days by advertisements for Cussons, Lux and Palmolive soaps. There were even posters advertising Gibb’s solid pink toothpaste in round red, green and blue tins that many of us once knew so well. We also discovered that Palmolive soap, first produced in 1898, was made from a mixture of palm and olive oils, hence its name.

It was surprising to learn that European rules regarding soap making are far simpler than the French rules that preceded them. It is possible that the latter were more for the benefit of the maker than they were for the user, for Louis XIV consigned three soap makers to the guillotine because their products made his skin itch. Happily, things have changed, and we would like to wish the whole family at Mestré a long and productive future at their family home.