One of the best indulgences in life is sitting in an elegant salon de thé on a crisp spring afternoon in Paris, sipping perfectly brewed tea in gorgeous china and nibbling on a buttery madeline or flakey palmier. I love all things French – the language, the culture, the art, the food, and even their take on tea. Although France isn’t as famous for its tea consumption as its neighbor to the north, it would be foolish to dismiss the long history, intoxicating flavors, and artistry of French tea.
Tea first came to France in 1639 – 22 years before it came to England – and was used for medicinal reasons. The aristocracy and upper classes were the sole consumers of tea because importation of tea was dangerous and therefore costly. The French elite soon discovered that tea tasted fantastique and it quickly became a fashionable beverage. The tea culture of 17th century France is vividly described in the letters of Madame de Sévigné – a member of the court of Louis XIV – which is a delightful read if you enjoy 17th century French royal court gossip. But alas, the French revolution happened and since tea was associated with the aristocracy, it disappeared from French culture for 50 years. However, since then, tea has enjoyed a quiet, yet steady, increase in popularity, culminating in an estimated 140 tea establishments in Paris today.
An excellent example (and one of my favorite examples) of the resurrection of tea in French culture is the Mariage Frères Tea Company. Founded in 1854, Mariage Frères supplied high-quality tea to the fancy hotels and gourmet food shops of Paris for over 100 years before falling into decline. Then, in 1983, the company was revitalized by three tea lovers. They took the already excellent tea the company sold, added the subtle flavors of rich fruits, exotic flowers, and natural vanilla bean, and served it in beautiful tea cups with incredible French pastries in their own stylish tea salons. It has been a huge success and is famous the world over. Today, it is one of the companies that define the term “French tea.”
While the popularity of tea in England has been dwindling, France has been embracing tea and adding its own sophisticated gastronomical sensibilities to the brew. The French traditionally do all things culinary with pride and perfection. They put an emphasis on beauty, quality, and nuance and have carried on that tradition with their tea. It is not something to be missed. Bon Appétit.