A 'Mariage' Made in Heaven

By Karen Burns

If you love tea and you find yourself in Paris, sooner or later (probably sooner) you'll make your way to the most fabulous French tearoom of all: Mariage Frères. There you'll be dazzled by the selection of more than 500 teas, the colonial décor of potted palms and natural rattan, the handsome waiters all in white, and the extensive menu of quiches, salads, cakes and scones, many flavored with tea. Most of all you'll be charmed by the tearoom's atmosphere of antiquity, of settled elegance, of this-is-the-way-it's-always-been.

And for good reason. Mariage Frères is the oldest tea importer in France. The company ("Mariage" is the family surname; "Frères" means "Brothers") started trading in tea in the 1660s when Nicolas Mariage traveled to Persia, the East Indies, and the Moghul Empire as part of a trade delegation. A descendant, Jean-Fran┴ois Mariage, was still dealing in tea 150 years later in the northern French town of Lille. In 1845, Aimé and Auguste, two of Jean-Fran┴ois' sons, founded Auguste Mariage & Compagnie in Paris.

The company as we know it came into being on June 1, 1854, when brothers Henri and Edouard Mariage (Aimé's sons) founded Mariage Frères. The firm has stayed in the same building - at 30, rue du Bourg-Tibourg - all this time. Today Mariage Frères has three tearooms in Paris and a recently opened boutique named, aptly, Thé Fran┴ais.

More than any other person or group, Mariage Frères has been responsible for creating what can justly be called the "French art of tea."

What is the French art of tea? Mariage Frères will tell you that, first and foremost, it is diversity. France has never been a big tea-drinking country. Mariage Frères says that this is an advantage because the French never developed fixed traditions regarding tea, and so they're open to new flavors, new blends, and new varieties. Maybe they're right. Today the French drink the widest variety of teas in the world - from Darjeeling to Gyokuro to Lapsang Souchong. Perhaps even more popular are the blends, which at Mariage Frères are given intriguing names: Genghis Khan, Balthazar, Yin Yang, Zodiac, "Thés des Poètes Solitaires" (Tea of Solitary Poets), and "Elixir d'Amour" (Elixir of Love) are just a few.

In fact, since Henri Mariage came out with a tea/chocolate blend in 1860, the company has brought mélange (French for blending) to a high art. Mariage introduces on average ten new teas every year. Well-known creations include Thé Sur le Nil (sencha flavored with citronella), Thé l'Opéra (green tea flavored with fruits and spices), Marco Polo (black tea flavored with Chinese and Tibetan fruits and flowers), Montagne de Jade (Chinese green tea with small bits of candied fruit), and Noil (black tea flavored with Christmas-y spices, including orange and vanilla). These teas, and 500 others, are on sale by the gram at the tearoom.

The "French art of tea" also means attention to How It's Done. Just as in food and wine, with French tea the emphasis is on preparation and presentation. Thus Mariage Frères takes credit for what Paris tea insiders say is the first principle of tea preparation: infusing the tea for the proper amount of time, at the proper temperature, and then removing the leaves from the pot before serving. This is the heart of Mariage's "Five Golden Rules for Making Tea Successfully."

And they practice what they preach. Your tea at Mariage Frères is served to you in an insulated white porcelain teapot and is perfectly infused. Peek inside - not a leaf in sight. Never too strong, never too weak!

Mariage Frères also takes credit for tea-scented jellies. The original recipe was developed in 1986 and is called "Gelée Extra de Thé." Made with lemon juice, sugar and pure tea, the jellies come in Earl Grey, Tarry Souchong, Noël, Marco Polo and other flavors. The tea jellies are strictly a French creation. "Even the English did not think of this!" the company brags.

In addition to the tea jellies, the shop at the Mariage Frères tearoom has many other temptations. You can get lost among the teacups, teaspoons, tea containers, tea-scented candles, tea-flavored cookies, tea candy, and tea books. And, of course, teapots. Mariage Frères teapots are given grand names (among them: Tzar Alexandre, Fortune, and "Fils du Ciel," which means Son of Heaven), and they are exquisite.

One thing is sure, you won't go away hungry, or empty-handed. You don't have to be French to enjoy the French art of tea!