I don’t know what heaven smells like, but I hope it smells like the savonnerie. Bottles of potions — perfumes, colognes, shampoo, eau de toilette — fill the dark wooden dressers that line the shop in endless shades: sky blue, pale orange, teal, rose, grapefruit, pale caramel. Vanille, vetyver, neroli, mirabelle. The soaps, rectangles of pastel beauty, take center stage on a long table in the middle of the shop, piled high in tiers like weddings cakes. Lait chaud, fleur de lotus, fraises de bois, helioflower. Posters of pinup girls decorate the walls, along with iron statues, ceramics and wooden carvings of Americana — a Coca-Cola advertisement, a Harley-Davidson sign. It’s Harry Potter meets down-home diner charm.
Virginie Sirgant, the soap-maker with a mischievous glint in her eyes, fits right in. She wears an apron over a lavender top and royal purple flared pants, a long string of pearls and no makeup. Her hair is arranged in two long brown braids. She speaks with a joyful intensity in both French and English, her eyes darting about the room, her hands gesturing and miming throughout. Virginie first learned to make soap at 14 during a stay with a host family in England, but only after visiting an Italian shop that sold food-shaped soaps did she decide to open a shop of her own. Here in Auvillar, a quiet, rosé-sipping village in southwestern France, she’s taken a more classic route with her own soaps.
“I don’t think that French people could wash themselves with cheese, with a piece of mortadella,” she says.
One of her favorite perfumes is mirabelle, named for a smallish yellow fruit similar to a plum. She twists the top off a bottle of mirabelle shampoo for me to smell — the aroma is an addicting sweet tartness, and I can almost taste the first bite of a just-underripe plum. “When I was younger, my grandfather made apple pie with mirabelle,” she says.
Soap-making is a science, one Virginie takes seriously. She uses a process called hot saponification, which involves heating the soap under a fire up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. It can be dangerous, but Virginie is clearly enamored with, and a master of, the natural chemistry behind the process. Some soaps are more basic than others, she explains, and the more basic the soap, the stronger it is. Solid soap is around an 8 or a 9 on the pH scale — good for the hands but too strong for the face. To demonstrate, she brings out some pH strips and pops one in her mouth. It comes out a vague greenish-blue color. “Ah, today I’m neutral!” My pH strip (which Virginie slips right into my mouth) is slightly darker in color, a little more basic. “It’s very funny if you eat lemon,” she says.
Talking to Virginie, who is warm in a charmingly erratic way, you wouldn’t guess that the savonnerie is under threat. The European Union recently enacted new legislation requiring soap-makers to put petrochemicals in their soap, which Virginie refuses to do out of concern for health and the environment. “European Union are completely stupid,” she says, rolling her eyes and winking almost simultaneously. For now, she’s operating her shop under the radar. Because of the new rules, Virginie made her last batch of liquid soap this winter and estimates that she has only one or two years left of the solid soap.
She doesn’t seem dispirited by this, or at least isn’t letting on if she is. She likes to work with her hands, and her next step seems to be ceramics — she has already traveled to Japan to learn Japanese ceramic techniques. Unsurprisingly, she taught herself quite a bit of the language before the trip.
“I’m a material girl, but not material like money,” she says. “You don’t make soap to make money. It’s impossible.”
Talia Soglin | firstname.lastname@example.org