By Elin Headrick
Treasures of the Musée du Thé
The shop at 30, rue du Bourg-Tibourg
A selection of teapots for sale
Tucked into a side street of the Marias district of Paris Mariage Frères is quite the experience. The vicinity, home to the Picasso Museum and the residence where Victor Hugo penned Les Misérables, invites you to meander. We were lost in the medieval lanes and architecture when we found the address we were seeking. True to the Mariage family’s roots in the Marias this space, which began as their warehouse in the early 1980s, now houses a tearoom, shop and museum. Albeit puffy eyes and jet lag my husband and I truly enjoyed a few hours in this temple to tea and French civility.
Tea is very special here. I was slightly overwhelmed by the many opportunities behind one lovely French façade. We decided to sit and have tea first, then visit the museum and finally peruse the store. As you enter, the scents alone make it clear this is a unique corner of the world. You can feel the sense of history and permanence as your eyes travel the walls and shelves. We were drawn in by the natural light of the tearoom, greeted pleasantly, and then given our choice of table. A large center skylight floods the room with warm light. The colonial décor, palms looming and a milieu of distant past, lends a distinctive feel: this is a place to take your time.
Our waiter, dressed in the signature white linen jacket, was helpful with our selection and equally eager to impart knowledge about the extensive offerings. The service is impeccable. Because of his jet lag, my husband preferred something strong. The waiter suggested an Assam; it was rich, dark and flavorful, which was everything he needed in a tea. I wanted a Darjeeling, and with a choice of 64 different Darjeelings, I asked our waiter to select his favorite for me. He chose one from the Castleton estate and, of course, prepared it perfectly. The Darjeeling was sublime; one of the best I’ve tasted. They steep the leaves an appropriate amount then present it sans leaf in a beautiful, insulated pot of their own design. The lunch menu looked delicious and the tea cuisine seemed so French. However, we chose sweets. From the Chariot Colonial I selected a divine Earl Grey Madeline and scone, both delicious. I especially enjoyed their signature tea-infused jellies served alongside. My husband indulged in a decadent Glaces au thé, a raspberry parfait of sorts.
Up a narrow wooden staircase, the museum is filled with treasures from bygone eras and continents. The sense of world history through the leaf, seen in crates from tea-producing countries, canisters, unique pots and cups, envelops you. One can feel the connection the Mariage family had with the tea and spice trade dating back to the 1660s.
The shop is a treat for the senses. Visually, it is beautiful. Hundreds of oversized black canisters line the walls. The scent of tea permeates everything. I can still smell tea in the pages of the book I brought home. Men, specifically chosen to carry on the “brother’s” (Frères in French) feel, kindly offer teas to inspect and smell. The shop has a vintage feel, including a large counter scale one might find in an old apothecary shop.
With a carefully chosen collection of approximately 500 fine teas from around the globe, variety must be a cornerstone of the company. The owners travel throughout China, Japan, India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia and Africa in search of the premium leaf. The mélange (blends), with names that evoke visions and scents of distant lands and timelessness, are another mainstay. In true French tea style they are made from the finest ingredients. A wide variety of accessories including the anticipated pots, cups, and spoons are available for sale. In addition there is a selection of not-so-expected tea scented candles and incense. Cookies and tea-flavored jellies highlight the sweet offerings.
So much care is given to the selection, blending, preparation and service of tea one may compare it to the life of a wine. This is the French Art of Tea, and their word connoisseur captures the spirit of Mariage Frères.
There are three Mariage Frères tearooms in Paris. The original location in the Marias (location of this review): 30, rue du Bourg-Tibourg, and just across the street the boutique, Thé Français Rive Gauche: 13 rue des Grands-Augustins, Paris 6e Étoile: 260 Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Paris 8e
Their website may soon be offered in English, but for now just French and Japanese: www.mariageFrères.com
For a description of several of their teas in English go to http://mFrères.com
For a few recommendations and pictures check out the Culture and Experience pages of teafolio.com