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 World War II, when soap was considered an essential commodity.

Today, Bruna sells soap from the same shopfront on Marseille’s Old Port — wearing a sanitary mask and skintight gloves.

“Even though we work in a factory full of virus-repellent soap, it is good to take precautions,” he said.

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, (Marseilles 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.

As the public rushed to buy supplies to last during a looming quarantine, 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.

The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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