A French twist on tea

By Adeline Teoh

Although the word café is native to France, one might be surprised at how difficult it is to find a good cup of specialty coffee. Some say that the coffee culture is so strong it will take years before the French accept any change.

Not so in the world of tea. Thanks to a fairly weaker (mind the pun) tea culture, the country is enjoying an uplift in its tea scene.

In a roundabout way, we have the French Revolution to thank. Prior to the 19th century, tea was a drink for the upper classes. In the same way the exploits of the Boston Tea Party had a negative and enduring impact on tea consumption in the United States, the French Revolution turned everything elite, including tea-drinking, taboo.

Now that the revolution is centuries old, the French have had time to make amends with – and rethink – tea in a way that long-standing tea cultures like that of the Untied Kingdom have found more difficult. With the price of tea now in reach of the average French person, previous traces of elitism have all but disappeared and a new phase of emphasising the gourmet has pushed the tea movement forward.

Refined tea
It would be remiss to discuss tea in France without mentioning Mariage Frères (Mariage Brothers), a Parisian institution that now has an international reputation. The Mariage family has been in the tea trade since the 17th century. The ‘original’ brothers, Pierre and Nicolas, worked for the French East India Company travelling the world, looking for exotic goods to bring home. In 1854 their descendants, brothers Henri and Edouard Mariage, founded the current company.

Despite the sting of the revolution, the brand focused on premium tea aimed at the upper class. To expand their offering they became master blenders, adding exotic fruits and flowers to their brews. In doing so, they inadvertently created a signature for French tea, one that delicately balanced other flavours, much like French cuisine. Interestingly, France has developed an added-value market by exporting these blends to Italy, Japan, Switzerland, and the United States.

During the 19th century, France also became fascinated with the east, particularly Japan. Japonisme became a trend and the refined rituals of Japanese chanoyu (tea ceremony) not only introduced Japanese-style tea to France, but many of the fine bowls, cups, and utensils as well.

Perhaps the biggest contribution to tea France has made is the tea salon, an alternative to a café as a place for afternoon tea and gossip; family-friendly and cultured. At the hour of afternoon tea, usually around five o’clock, the French would consume delicate morsels of food and show off their porcelain collection. It was a practice made famous by English noblewoman Anna Russell, who is often credited as the godmother of the afternoon tea, but was certainly established in France well before the Duchess of Bedford was born. Today, you will find a salon de thé in every French town serving tea and a range of sweets.

The growing tea revolution
All this history makes a clear point: tea in France has always been refined, and it has always been about taking time. This goes some way to explaining why hot, loose-leaf tea continues to thrive here. Unlike other parts of the world, the French market has not taken to instant or bottled tea.

According to market research conducted by analytics firm XERFI, about a third of France’s tea market is specialty tea, with imports having grown threefold in the past 25 years. Which brings me to how this humble leaf is starting to make a mark in wine country – in a word: terroir.

This word is defined as the natural environment in which wine is produced, taking into account soil, climate, and topography. It is a concept a new wave of French tea lovers has easily adopted for tea. While France may not import a lot of tea, what it does bring into the country and drink is mostly sourced at origin, with a special regard for terroir.

Tea consultant Monique Duchêne notes tea-drinking at home is becoming more sophisticated, even in France. She built her business Asthéya to educate and engage interested amateurs as part of a home-based network.

“Tea brings people together so it is well suited for home consumption. It is also a product that requires education and French people love to learn about the world through tea,” Monique says.

Tea won’t overthrow wine as France’s favourite beverage any time soon, but the growing interest in tea and the marked increase in specialty tea consumption is certainly a trend to watch. It won’t be a bloody revolution, but it might be a bloody delicious one.

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