Tuesday, November 04, 2003

French Tea

When you think about tea, do you think of England? No question the British are big tea drinkers. When I spent a few weeks in the South of England one summer we drank tea no less than 5 times a day. But when I think about tea I also think of France where some of my favorite teas are sold by a company called Mariage Freres. The oldest tea importers in France, in business since 1660, they really know their stuff.

In Paris the Mariage Freres shop has been in the same spot since 1854 on the rue du Bourg-Tibourg in the Marais. Visiting the shop is like stepping into the past. The shop is tiny and all the staff bustle about in white colonial era uniforms. The cool dark front room features a series of shelves lined with large ancient tea canisters. The scent of tea is everywhere and the staff is happy to open a canister and offer you a sniff of any of the 500 varieties you wish. The back room is a bright tea salon and while a bit cramped, it is lovely with tropical potted palms and decadent tea cakes on display. A perfect place to stop for a break from window shopping.

So much of what I love about France is the sense of style. The French even do tea stylishly. The names of the blends are as romantic and stylish as you might expect from a turn of the century novel--Jade Mountain, Vivaldi, Imperial Wedding, Balthazar, Elixir of Love, Exotic, and Tea of Solitary Poets for example.

In the words of Henri Mariage, "The fragrance of poetry and adventure pervades each cup of tea". If you want to enjoy a richly perfumed black tea that is a bit of an adventure in and of itself, I recommend what is perhaps their most well known blend--Marco Polo, a black tea flavored with Chinese and Tibetan fruits and flowers. If you buy it in one of their signature tins it makes an elegant gift. While Mariage Freres does not have any outlets in the US, fortunately Williams-Sonoma shops do carry a few of their teas including the famous Marco Polo.