Tea and the Guillotine

By Karen Burns

Along with the heads of Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette, another casualty of the French Revolution was tea.

Yes, really. It's a little known fact, but after its introduction to Europe in the 17th century tea was tremendously popular in France. It first arrived in Paris in 1636 (22 years before it appeared in England!) and quickly became popular among the aristocracy. Cardinal Mazarin, the most powerful man in France under Louis XIV (great-great-great grandfather of the unfortunate Louis XVI), took tea regularly. Actually, he started drinking it because he thought it would help his gout, but it's a safe bet he continued because he enjoyed the taste!

The Sun King himself, as Louis XIV was known, became a tea drinker in 1665. He thought it would help his gout, too, and also had been told that the Chinese and Japanese never suffered from heart problems.

Tea was so popular in Paris that Madame de Sévigné, who chronicled the doings of the Sun King and his cronies in a famous series of gossipy letters to her daughter, often found herself mentioning tea. "Saw the Princesse de Tarente [de Sévigné wrote]... who takes 12 cups of tea every day... which, she says, cures all her ills. She assured me that Monsieur de Landgrave drank 40 cups every morning. 'But Madame, perhaps it is really only 30 or so.' 'No, 40. He was dying, and it brought him back to life before our eyes.'

Madame de Sévigné also reported that it was a Frenchwoman, the Marquise de la Sablière, who initiated the fashion of adding milk to tea. "Madame de la Sablière took her tea with milk, as she told me the other day, because it was to her taste." (By the way, the English delighted in this "French touch" and immediately adopted it.)

French doctors got excited about tea because they saw it as a possible medicine. As early as 1648, a Monsieur Morisset published a treatise claiming that tea was mentally stimulating. (However, when he brought it before the faculty of medicine at the University of Paris some ardent defenders of another medicinal plant, sage, had the treatise burned!) In 1657, the scientist Jonquet praised tea as the "divine herb." In 1685, Philippe Sylvestre Dufour published the Traités Nouveaux et Curieux du Café, du Thé et du Chocolat (New and Curious Treatises on Coffee, Tea and Chocolate), one of the first books in French to address tea. It extolled the leaf for its ability to cure headaches and aid digestion, and it even offered prescriptions.

On August 3, 1700, the French ship Amphitrite returned from China with silk, porcelain and, of course, tea. In the years that followed, the number of these ships was to increase tenfold. Tea had many fervent supporters in Paris and in Versailles, where the Sun King held court. As well as Mazarin, the royal minister Chancellor Séguier, the playwright Racine, and the writer Madame de Genlis all drank tea. In 1714, the princess of Palatine remarked that Chinese tea was as fashionable in Paris as chocolate was in Spain.

However, popularity among the upper classes may have been the kiss of death for tea in France. In 1789, a screaming mob, enraged by a noble class that did nothing but levy crippling taxes and make war, attacked the notorious Bastille prison. By the time the violence stopped, the king and queen had lost their heads and so had a goodly number of counts, dukes, and the like. Tea, a symbol of royalty, went the way of royalty. Tea's story was not over in France, however. Only 50 years after the Revolution, an Anglomania swept the country. Everything English was all the fashion and it again became stylish to take tea, often in the evening after dinner and accompanied by small pastries. It was around this time that the famous French tea importer, Mariage Frères, began to expand its business. Jean-François Mariage had been running an import firm featuring teas, spices and colonial goods in Lille, a city to the north of Paris, since the late 1700s. He trained his four sons—Louis, Aimé, Charles, and Auguste—in the family business. Aimé's sons, Henri and Edouard Mariage, in turn took up the family trade. On June 1, 1854, they founded the Mariage Frères (Mariage Brothers) tea company in Paris, today the oldest in France. Mariage Frères quickly demonstrated what has become its trademark—interesting blends. In 1860, the company came out with "Chocolat des Mandarins," a tea/chocolate blend touted as a healthy way to consume chocolate, which was considered difficult to digest. Today the Mariage Frères catalogue lists 213 blends among its selection of more than 500 teas. Also available are tea-flavored cookies, tea candy, tea-scented candles, and tea jellies, a French invention now found in shops from Kyoto to New York. And it's only a beginning. Tea is growing more and more popular in France, especially in Paris. Three "tea drinkers' clubs" meet regularly to drink and talk about tea. French tea aficionados can study their passion at the "Université du Thé" (University of Tea) and the "Ecole du Thé" (School of Tea). Nearly 145 tearooms do excellent business in Paris and more open every year. Four-star chefs even use tea as an ingredient in appetizers, main courses, and desserts. French drinkers of tea pride themselves on their diverse tastes, from English-style blends to Japanese greens to Chinese whites. They practice what they call the "French art of tea," which simply consists of quality ingredients, careful preparation, and elegant presentation. Removing the leaves from the pot immediately after the tea is infused is especially considered the first principle of French tea preparation. A marked interest for teas grown on specific estates is another hallmark of the French approach to tea. Sound familiar? You're right. The French are bringing to tea the same seriousness they have always devoted to wine. In short, tea may finally have recovered from the French Revolution and be rightfully taking its place in France!