by Janine Lea-Oesi,
The tea salons of Mariage Frères – masters of the art of French tea – are a mecca for tea connoisseurs the world over.
In the Anglo-Saxon world tea is almost exclusively associated with the British and India but rarely with the French. This is a rather unfortunate accident of history as tea, like wine, holds an honored place at the French table and this in no small part thanks to the Mariage family, who have taken it well beyond the status of a mere drink, elevating it to heights of refinement that only the French seem able to do. The family were merchants in the 17th century and belonged to one of the six main merchant groups in the city, each of which enjoyed royal patronage. Jean-François Mariage and his four sons continued the business in Lille in the 18th century and in 1854 the brothers, Édouard and Henri, founded the business that has evolved into the present-day Mariage Frères. Initially wholesale tea merchants, they only started selling to the general public in the 1980s.
The tea salons
A Mariage Frères tea salon is truly a delight for the senses and the appetite! The five shops in Paris are located in the Marais, at the Carrousel du Louvre, the Madeleine, the 6th arrondissement and at Étoile (rue Faubourg St Honoré, near the Salle Pleyel). Nothing is hurried here. From the colonial decor and the white-linen clad waiters, to the wonderful colors and smells of the merchandise, everything conspires to beckon the visitor to take his time and sample the best of the best. Not only is there a myriad (over five hundred varieties) of deliciously different teas on offer, as well as tea-based cuisine, jams and confectionery, but the presence of small tea museums in some of their shops, displaying a fascinating array of objects associated with the art of making fine tea, invite one into the past to share the history of tea and the Mariage family’s three centuries long association with it.
I went to the shop in the rue Faubourg St Honoré, accompanied by a wonderfully Francophile Japanese friend who told me he was familiar with the Frères shop in Tokyo. Even though it was near closing time (we were going to a concert at the nearby Salle Pleyel) we were never hurried and the waiter was both helpful and attentive, but without being overly so. My problem was choice. With so much on offer I simply didn’t know where to start. The waiter’s solution: choose the patisserie first, and allow him to make the appropriate suggestions for the tea. This worked out very well.
Is it value for money?
Mariage Frères is not cheap and you can expect to pay around 18€ for a pot of tea and a patisserie. That being said, the servings are extremely generous and you get a very large pot of tea, brewed to perfection. The impeccable service and refined surroundings only add to the experience.