The current adventure actually started ten years ago, when our friend Sylvia learned we were about to leave on a trip to Paris. She pressed $50 into my hand, begging, “You have to get me two kilos of vanille des îles at Thé Mariage Frères.” Sensing my hesitation at possibly transporting a couple of kilos of some unknown (controlled?) substance, she whispered, “Try some yourself, you’ll love it.”
Turned out my friend’s drug of choice was an intensely flavored black tea infused with incomparable vanilla from Madagascar. And to procure it, my family wandered the winding streets of the Marais district of Paris to a quaint teashop with an elegant tea salon that served swoon-worthy pastries. Our then 9-year old daughter, Lila, fell completely under the spell of Thé Mariage Frères, as did my husband and I.
Thanks to a recent work assignment of my husband’s, the three of us are back again in Paris for a week. But this time—because of Bay Area Bites—I have an appointment to interview Monsieur Loris Thibaud, the man in charge of Thè Mariage Frères, in my role as journaliste amèricaine, and 19-year old Lila (a college sophomore and art major) will be my photographer.
When we enter, the teashop is abuzz with last minute shoppers. The walls are lined with hundreds of large timeworn tins labeled with mysterious names like fleur de désir, thé des impressionnistes and rose de porcelaine, from which white-suited clerks scoop and weigh the aromatic mixtures on ancient scales.
Monsieur Thibaud greets us and leads us up the narrow staircase to the little museum where we can talk tea in relative quiet among antique pots, canisters and baskets. He shares a little history:
As the oldest beverage in the world, tea began its reign in China 5000 years ago and moved on to Japan, Persia, the Islamic world, Russia and then to Europe in the seventeenth century. In 1665, after King Louis XIV‘s doctors told him tea would benefit his digestion, the King sent brothers Nicholas and Peter Mariage to Persia and Madagascar, respectively, to sign trade agreements and gather up the magical stuff.
Several generations of Mariages stayed true to the trade of tea importing and finally in 1854, Henri and Edouard Mariage commenced wholesaling to the restaurants and hotels of Paris. But despite the venerable looking, colonial design of the tea counter, this charming retail shop only opened in 1984 and currently, there are no more Mariage family members in the business.
The French take their tea as they take their wine: quite seriously and Thè Mariage Frères prints up a list of essential rules to make their tea correctly, which might actually come in handy since their collection of teas include black, white and green varieties from over 30 countries. But their specialty is fragrant blends, created much like perfume, by combining aromas and tastes, selecting from hundreds of scents: including the leaves, flowers, bark, seeds, roots, leaf-oil and fruit of an entire arboretum of plants.
After a bit of a wait in line, Lila and I are seated in the elegant tea salon, with its custard yellow walls and potted plants, surrounded by stylish patrons and their tea-fueled chatter. We order sandwiches first: melted cheese with smoked salmon and a smoked chicken with creamy spread, both served on greenish matcha tea bread.
In fact, Mariage Frères has pioneered the art of cooking with tea and every dish on their menu incorporates some form of tea, from tea flavored jelly, to tea infused rice and vinaigrette to a tart topped with pears poached in hibiscus tea, and a chocolate cream pie featuring bergamot, the essence of Earl Grey.
Each table sports a few of their exclusively designed teapots, which encase the black or white porcelain in a silver shell to help keep the tea warm (without need for a British tea cozy). Over the years, I’ve enjoyed a number of their teas, (especially black teas with fruit, like peach, mango or black currant.) But today, Lila and I return to our first love, the intoxicating vanille des îles.
Lucky us in the East Bay can buy some (but not all their hundreds of varieties) at Market Hall Market on College Avenue!
Back in Paris: The next morning, we are up early, exploring vintage clothing shops in the cobblestoned Montmartre neighborhood where we are staying. Lila notices the welcoming window of an adorable tea spot called MILK, which stands for “Mum in her Little Kitchen.”
No way we’re going to pass that up. So we head in for a mid-morning tea and toast that eventually leads to a decadent pistachio and chocolate fondant. The table is set with pots of homemade jam in flavors like strawberry mint or spiced clementine, plus a banana, date and coconut spread. The cozy space feels exactly like we’re sitting in someone’s 1960s kitchen, with Formica dinette sets in crayola colors and flowered dishes. Owner, Deborah Habib makes all the goodies daily in her kitchen in the back of the room. Her father is our server. Habib also sells cute accessories, arranged in niches around the room, which include a motley collection of paisley aprons, mushroom magnets and kitchen elves. Luckily, Lila has her camera along to capture the photogenic bric-a-brac.
I thought this story was just going to be about Mariage Frères, but it seems to be expanding. So I tell Lila, “If we’re going do more than one tea salon, we need to do three or four.” Tea parties have actually been a recurrent theme in our lives. A china cabinet holding my grandmother’s collection of English bone china teacups and saucers resides in a treasured corner of my dining room. When she was little, Lila loved giving tea parties, first for her teddy bears and then for her friends. Sometimes, in the more turbulent teen years, a shared cup of tea from a flowery teapot could call a momentary truce on eye-rolling or nagging. Now that she is away at college in Canada most of the year, our tea sharing opportunities have dwindled. What could be better than a mutual quest for unique Parisian tea salons?
Lana, a Paris native and family friend, who is the same age as Lila, suggests our next destination, La Fourmi Ailée. The robin’s egg-blue exterior of this intimate restaurant stands out amidst the historic buildings nestled in the shadow of Nôtre Dame. Its interior resembles something out of a fairy tale, with a whimsical painted ceiling of clouds, plenty of book-lined shelves, and a row of pre-loved teapots along the windowsill. Although a full lunch menu is available, we arrive after the kitchen has closed. The tea is good, but I find the pastries a bit odd: apple streudel with mushrooms?! It’s a sweet, funky place to sit and sip tea, especially if you are in your twenties, but my taste in Parisian tea salons runs more to gracious elegance.
We end the week in style, with a visit to a glorious tea salon in the spacious dining room of a 19th century mansion that is now a museum—Musée Jacquemart-André. Nélie Jacquemart and Edouard André were avid Italian art collectors as well as husband and wife. The opulent rooms of their former residence, filled with exquisite paintings, sculptures and furnishings, provide an intimate opportunity for visitors to engage with the works of art.
In their former dining room, the walls are hung with tapestries and the space is dotted by huge flower-filled, burgundy vases, that match the floor-length drapery and thick carpet. When we are seated, the tea service is polite and refined.
I pick a luscious wedge of plum pie and Lila chooses a decadent raspberry cream tart. We drink Ceylon tea, perfumed with aromas of strawberry, cherry, raspberry and redcurrant. Outside the windows, massive stone lions guard the manicured garden. The tea is fragrant, the pastry perfect. Lila and I sigh contentedly. This is a moment to savor.