It happened by accident. I had a kitchen full of cold-process soap that I had loving made a month prior and friends were eager to buy. Before I knew it I had an online shop and no idea what I was doing, but doing it anyways. I loved the process of creating fragrant blends from essential oils and mixing them with clays and teas to create something unique, something me, each stamped, cut and packaged with my own two hands. I loved discovering the properties of the oils and the plants they came from and how they had the potential to heal.
Now more than 10 years later, I’m down to my last two bars of soap and I can’t help but wonder what to do next. It was so hard leaving the business behind in Canada last year but I knew if I wanted to continue on I’d be rebuilding from a new home base and I’d have to source new materials, new moulds and find new ways to do business.
What does all this have to do with where I am now? Well, I was shocked to learn, when I first arrived in this more northern region of France, that the next village over, Milly-La-Foret had a history with these same oils and plants I had worked with in Canada. It felt a bit serendipitous, don’t you think?
I was a bit taken back to discover that a little chapel, the chapel of Saint Blaise, just outside of the main centre of town, was in fact the last remaining building on the site where this man started to heal those affected with leprosy through prayer and medicinal plants. His work started in the 12th century and continued on until the 16th. After years of wear and tear, the original hospital having already long been torn down, the chapel was in need of some love and attention and there was a man, well known in the village, artist Jean Cocteau (he’s very famous in France though I know many from North America give me puzzled looks…) The local mayor charged him with the task of renovating the chapel and bringing it back to life. Painted frescoes on the interior walls feature some of the medicinal herbs you’ll find in the surrounding gardens. Speaking of gardens, if you’re interested in a picturesque spot for a tea or coffee on a nice day – go to Jean Cocteau’s house which is situated on the École river and you can wander through the house, learn about his art and enjoy all of the espaliered fruit trees.
In fact the culture of medicinal plants are so important you’ll even find just down the street the National Conservatory for perfume, medicinal and aromatic herbs. It’s a site where you can learn about how they’re cultivated, studied and used and even scratch and sniff a few. They’ve got a little nursery where you can buy some of the plants, including the most well known of the herbs around here, Mitcham Milly Peppermint, also called black peppermint which is prized because it’s highly fragrant.
(Just a heads up, I’ll be sharing my favourite tea blend soon so keep an eye out!)
In case you’ve never heard of Jean Cocteau, another name you might be more familiar with and who lived was inspired by the nearby Fontainebleau forest was designer Christian Dior. He loved this town so much, he even named a perfume and a line of jewelry after it. How’s that for a tidbit!
And if you want to taste some of the local ingredients (watercress is the crop of choice around here) you’ll want to make it a Thursday afternoon when the centuries old covered market comes to life with fresh produce and flowers until dinner time. There are some great little terrace bar’s to have a nice drink and three fantastic bakeries to choose from, a shop that specializes in Mint and an herbalist, because they still exist around here. The old bell, from 1479, that used to ring the opening and closing of the market lives in the gardens of the chapel of Saint Blaise and it was used until 1925.
So what to you think? With a culture of aromatics, and new inspiration, should I start making soap here?