If you asked me where to find the best tea in the world, I would know where to send you. I wouldn't tell you to go to China, or Japan, or England. I would send you to the place where Japan Airlines gets the tea for its First Class passengers. I would send you to the place where Claridge's of London gets its tea. I would send you to Paris, to a company by the name of Mariage Frères.
What you would find is a tea shop with over 500 varieties of tea laid out apothecary style with a wall of teas that get measured by the gram into bags or tins. Around the store you would find a tempting assortment of tea-flavored and tea-scented products as well as pots and cups for tea preparation. Your first stop, however, should be to the tea room where you can steep yourself in the pleasures of the French Art of Tea.
It is chez Mariage Frères that the French Art of Tea was born, with its devotion to discovering and evolving the best way to unfold the elixir from every different type and classification of tea. They have written a book with that title to take you through the pas de deux between leaf and lip.
You start by warming the the pot with hot water, then measuring the tea into the strainer and letting the steam develop the aroma of the leaves. The temperature of the water then poured on the leaves varies according to the kind of tea. The steeping time is also different and exact for each variety. At the right moment, the leaves are removed to control the balance of the flavors released. Finally, the tea is allowed to cool a bit until it is at the ideal temperature before being drunk. It takes time to make, and at Mariage Frères, they invite you to take time to drink it.
The idea of tea as an invitation is fluid and evocative rather than formalized as it is for the English or Japanese. Tea is not a separate and isolated activity. Tea is drunk at meals or taken with a madeleine cookie to put soul between one bite and the next. Indeed, as my host in the tea room pointed out, Proust's madeleine was taken with tea in a place that most certainly served Mariage Frères tea.
The company's long tradition in the tea trade goes back to the Mariage family's travels in the 1600's on behalf of Louis XIV. A hundred and fifty years later, two brothers in the family, Henri and Edouard Mariage, began to import and sell the finest teas. They were the pre-eminent wholesale merchant to exclusive retailers, tea rooms and hotels. It was only in the 1980's that the company began selling directly to the public.
The French drink the widest range of teas in the world, bringing the same attention and connoisseurship to the choice of the right tea as they would the proper wine. There are morning, afternoon and evening blends with elegant names (my favorite is the des poetes solitaires, 'the tea of solitary poets,') and with complex flavors. Then there are flavored teas which come in classic varieties of jasmine or Earl Grey, fancy flavors that come from fruits, plants, roots and flowers, and the sublime flavored blends that are unrivaled in the world.
It was through one of these flavored blends that I discovered Mariage Frères. In 1992, I had gone into a tea room famous for its maccaroons, and I selected a tea to go with them that sounded exotic - Marco Polo. I have no memory of the cookie, unlike Proust. All I remember is the moment of tasting that tea.
The Marco Polo blend was one of the first of a whole line of flavored blends created by the current company president, Kitti Cha Sangmanee. Mr. Sangmanee had come to Paris from Thailand as a young man. His interest in tea led him to Mariage Frères, and his talent and enthusiasm inspired Henri Mariage's granddaughter, Marthe, to take him under her wing. It was he who came up with the concept of flavored blends to embody in tea the essence of the most evanescent moments and places in life. I have tried the copycat blends of other high-end tea companies. They are no more the original than the color xerox is the painting.
Mariage Frères has three shops in Paris and four in Japan, where they are considered the 'haute-couture' of tea. Select retailers in many major cities in the US offer their products as well. (see list below) And of course, you can go on line to the Mariage Frères website.
If you can read French, you will want to peruse the sensual, poetic names and descriptions of the teas. The descriptions are translated in the English language version of their book, The French Art of Tea which you might consider ordering for any tea lovers you know. For example, the description of the Japanese Sencha Uji tea is as follows: Its elegant leaves, with natural bloom, produce a slightly sweet liquor and grand, subtle aroma that fills the palate. A magnificent tea, inducing serenity.
Or one of the blends: 'Red Moon' is a green tea grown on hillsides in the Golden Triangle, from whence it follows an age-old caravan route to Tibetan monasteries. Its flowery, spicy taste has a flavour of honey balanced by ginger and scented with rose. For those timeless moments.
One of the extraordinary conditions of the tea business is that no matter how much care the company puts in delivering a fragrant, high-quality product to consumers, it is the consumer who must prepare the tea. And the preparation is critical. All the care in the world won't keep the bitterness out of a cup if the person preparing it squeezes excess liquid out of the bag, thereby compressing the tannin out of the leaves and into the cup. Or if a person stores coffee and tea interchangeably in the same pot. Or even if one makes a delicate white tea in a pot used for black as well.
If you don't have the accoutrements to measure and brew your tea in dedicated pots in the manner of the conoisseurs, you might want to consider buying the Mariage Frères tea in bags. (On the French website, this would be the thes en mousseline. Click around until the window Comptoir des Thes opens and you will see the choice in the sidebar.) The Mariage Frères tea bags are folded and tied bits of cotton cheesecloth packed in a simple black box with a gold foil lining that literally glows when you open. The aroma wafts up and you are transported to another plane even before you take your first sip. You are happy as you make the tea. Then you take your first sip, and you understand the difference between happiness and bliss.
You can order from to the Mariage Frères website here.
You can find Mariage Frères teas in these stores in the US.
DEAN & DELUCA
AEDES DE VENUSTAS
GARDEN OF EDEN GOURMET MARKET
FRENCH LOOK INTERNATIONAL
THE PASTA SHOP
SUE FISHER KING
THE CULTURED CUP