With a history dating back 150 years, the Paris-based gourmet tea company, Mariage Frères, founded by brothers Henri and Edouard Mariage has raised the tradition of ‘afternoon tea’ to a sophisticated art form.
Entering Maison de The, the company’s flagship tearoom in the fashionable Marais district in the City of Light, means stepping away from bustling boulevards and back in time to an era of vintage wood floors and cubicles filled with giant tins of tea in a rainbow of colors containing, I was informed, more than 1,500 varieties from fifteen different countries, all of which customers can buy in the well-stocked shop.
Here Lyon-born Charly Chareyron, director of food and beverage and his staff, have created an intimate atmosphere for afternoon teas where relaxing background music, the quiet hum of conversation and the tinkle of spoon on cup, emblazoned with the company logo, are the only sounds.
A wide variety of teas and a diverse array of dishes are served unobtrusively on crisp tablecloths by well-dressed staff in white cotton suits. My companion described the atmosphere as “an island of senses.”
Located on Faubourg Saint Honore, a minute’s walk from City Hall, Maison de The is bathed in natural light, with wicker seating on two floors accommodating around 80 people. The company also has tea salons in London, Tokyo and Berlin.
The Parisian salon offers a sophisticated menu. With so many teas on offer and so little understanding of the varieties, we let Charly do the choosing for us. The result: Sakura Blue Jardin Premier, an indigo-colored mocktail with the scent of cherry blossom followed by Marco Polo Blue, an iced tea with fruity and flowery notes, then a Darjeeling First Flush with sweet notes of macaron and zesty hints of kumquat and incense.
An attractive aspect of Maison de The is that many teas can be paired with dishes, many of which are infused.
‘Feasting’ describes best our relaxing afternoon spent there after a morning of city sight-seeing and as a selection of creative fusion dishes presented on decorative plates emerged one after another from the kitchen.
They included tzatziki with Casablanca tea and fresh mint, pumpkin seeds, lemon grind and pomegranate; cannolo with hummus and green beans, with young, tender green tea leaves from Japan; Snob salad of green beans, bulgur, tomatoes, mixed greens, artichoke, prawns, house-smoked salmon, home-made foie gras and a salad dressing with Marco Polo vinaigrette; prawns with roasted peanuts, celery, carrots, mushrooms and a juzu Japonese tea bisque.
That was the savory part, then came the sweet one: an assortment of home-made scones, and pastries so colorful and finely shaped they resembled jewels. How’s this for mouth-watering delights: a Fujiyama look-alike of green tea cone with layers of poached apple, meringue and lime; soft, succulent tart made from wild strawberries; creme brulee; chocolate eclair so fine it was hard to tell where filling ended and crust began; and bright pink tart comprising green tea, rose flavored custards and fresh cream.
So proud are the owners of Mariage Frères of their illustrious heritage, they have even developed their own museum upstairs which can be visited free. Here you’ll see handcrafted, lacquered wooden Chinese tea-chests, samples of different teas under glass, an assortment of elegant teacups and pots, weighing machines and accounting books of famous clients.
The Mariage family’s roots can be traced to merchants from Lille who started trading exotic goods in the 17th century. In the 1660s, Nicolas Mariage was sent by Louis XIV to trade with the Shah of Persia, while his brother Pierre traded on behalf of the French East India Company.
When tea became a popular beverage within wealthy French circles, the Mariage family were among the top dealers who imported and sold it.
And so this long-held tradition continues to the present day.