Tea-tasting in Paris, Belfast and Monte Carlo

by Sean Hillen

Originally a quintessentially English tradition believed to have been initiated by Anna Maria Russell, Duchess of Bedford, friend of Queen Victoria, who frequently ordered daily sandwiches in her boudoir – afternoon teas are now hosted by most top-end hotels and restaurants.

With ‘International Tea Day’ celebrating the global beverage fast approaching in May, this increasingly popular tradition is likely to blossom even more over the next few weeks.

Sampling afternoon teas in three different countries – France, Monaco and Ireland – I discovered new trends in taste.

Mariage Frères, Paris

Photos by Columbia Hillen

With a 150-year history, this Paris-based gourmet tea company founded by brothers Henri and Edouard Mariage has raised ‘afternoon tea’ to a sophisticated art form.  

Entering Maison de The, its flagship tea salon in the fashionable Marais district means stepping away from bustling boulevards and back in time to an era of vintage wood floors and shelves filled with tins of tea in a rainbow of colors containing, I was informed, more than 1,500 varieties from fifteen different countries.

Here Lyon-born Charly Chareyron, director of food and beverage, has created an intimate atmosphere where relaxing background music, the quiet hum of conversation and the tinkle of spoon on cup 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.”

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 80 people.

With more than 300 teas, we let Charly do the choosing for us. The result: Sakura Blue Jardin Premier, an indigo-colored mocktail with the scent of cherry blossom; Marco Polo Blue, an iced tea with fruity and flowery notes; and a Darjeeling First Flush with sweet notes of macaron and zesty hints of kumquat and incense.

‘Feasting’ is the best word to describe our enjoyable afternoon there as creative dishes on decorative plates emerged from the  kitchen: 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.

Desserts were equally delectable: pastries so colorful and finely shaped they resembled jewels: a Fujiyama look-alike of green cone with layers of poached apple, meringue and lime; a soft, succulent tart with wild strawberries; chocolate eclair so fine that it was hard to tell where filling ended and crust began; and a pink tart with green tea and rose flavored custards and fresh cream. 

So proud are the owners of Mariage Frères of their heritage, they’ve developed their own museum upstairs and free to visit.

The Hermitage, Monte Carlo

Known more for its ritzy casino-based lifestyle than the quiet delights of afternoon tea, The Hermitage hotel in Monte Carlo offers a tranquil escape from the city’s gaming tables.

Amid antiques, original art, cornices, corbels and balustrades with wrought-iron flourishes highlighting its belle epoque design, this luxury hotel has added its own take on the afternoon tea tradition in its Le Limùn Bar. These include serving madeleines, small French sponge cakes with a distinctive shell-like shape named after Madeleine Paulmier who baked them for Louis XV; Paris–Brest, a national dessert made of choux pastry and praline flavoured cream, as well as a choice of macarons. Bright, bite-sized with tempting textures in their crunchy exterior and soft filling, I find the latter particularly hard to resist. 

The hotel also includes several French items in its savory menu including ‘croque monsieur,’ a hot ham and cheese sandwich, and foie gras on toast. Caesar salad reconstructed in a tiny bowl also features on the menu.

I counted eighteen teas on offer including Bali, a green tea with jasmine, lychee, grapefruit, blood peach and rose hints and lapsang souchong, a black tea consisting of Camellia sinensis leaves smoke-dried over a pinewood fire.

Choose a seat with views past Le Crystal Bar and out the glass entrance doors to the heart of Monte Carlo. And don’t forget to sneak a peak at the delightful stained-glass dome Gustava Eiffel designed for the hotel’s Winter Garden.

Europa Hotel, Belfast

Kym Montgomery (l) enjoys a moment with a guest. Photo by Sean Hillen

Served daily in its first-floor Piano Lounge, afternoon tea in this well-known 4-star hotel in Northern Ireland’s capital city is of the classic variety, with a silver, multi-tiered tray served table-side filled with an assortment of pastries, scones and finger sandwiches. 

Choice of teas include Hasting’s Blend Luxury Loose from Assam and Kenyan gardens and Earl Grey scented with natural oil of bergamot and sprinkled with marigold and cornflower petals. For something a little different, try the sweet Turkish apple variety infused with pineapple or the Green Tea Angel’s Kiss China Pai Mu Tan Sencha, with rose petals and pineapple cubes. Also known as White Peony Tea, it is grown in the province of Fujian.

A selection of finger sandwiches is varied, enough to suit most tastes – roast Irish chicken with chive mayo, Grants ham and cheddar with wholegrain mustard mayo, smoked salmon with dill and watercress, peach, brie and basil and savoury pithivier pie.

Kym Montgomery (l) serving the tea to guest. Photo by Sean Hillen

Aside from home-baked plain and fruit scones, desserts on the sweet tray are mouth-watering including lemon drizzle cake, Earl Grey macaroons, machia and salted caramel choux and dark chocolate torte.

Friendly and reliable mother-and-daughter team, Kym and Ruth Montgomery, provide fast, efficient service with a smile and seating is on comfortable armchairs. Choose a window seat with views over the busy thoroughfare of Victoria Street, across from the Crown Bar, a pub dating back to 1826 and once a Victorian gin palace.

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