Thursday, 29 May 2008

Tea in Paris: Part 2 - Vive La Revolution!

The eight arrondissement is the place to go for an expensive cup of tea. This is the quartier housing Ladurée and the Hotel de Crillon and some of the city's favourite tea emporiums and luxe food halls. This is not really the place to find interesting teas.
But, in the spirit of investigation I visited some of the doyens of tea merchants including Betjeman and Barton (since 1919), Hediard (since 1854) and Fauchon (opened their shop in 1886 and have been serving tea since 1898).
I wasn't really impressed with any of these shops. Only Betjeman and Barton was a dedicated tea shop while both Hediard and Fauchon only sell loose leaf tea as part of their luxury food stock. Fauchon's tea selection was
pretty small and some of their tea is stored in a clear perspex self-service counter.
Hediard carries a selection of about 200 teas but nothing caught my eye. Their 7 golden rules of tea preparation however, include "Scald the teapot and the leaves before use to enable the tea to release all its flavour". Aie! Who wants a steaming cup of tannin?

Betjeman and Barton was also disappointing. A tiny shop filled with all manner of kitsch "English" tea accessories such as flowery tea cosys and mugs. I confess I wasn't inspired to try their tea since the selection was mostly the usual "ye old merchant" tea with some first flush Darjeelings thrown in. However, I did find a replacement for my favourite Japanese tea pot that broke 3 years ago which pleased me no end. The staff were nice too.

Walking around
Place de la Madeleine in the rain wasn't completely unrewarding because Fauchon is selling a tea that made me stop in my tracks with an inelegant cry of "quoi?".
In their beautifully slick, hot pink and dark grey shop are huge stacks of Thé Mai 68.
Is it not the height of irony that the French equivalent of Fortum and Mason's is selling a tea celebrating an anarchist/Maoist uprising against capitalism and authority?
I can't wait for Harrods to start selling tea commemorating the Miners' Strike.

I had to have it.

I was absolutely ready to turn my nose up and was quite put out that the tea of the revolution is drinkable. Who would have thought it! A whole leaf green tea flavoured with rose, grapefruit and exotic fruits. I didn't feel like the flavours were just there to disguise an inferior grade of tea. In fact, the green is very distinct and complements the strength of the fruit flavours. However, the scent of the dry tea is overwhelmingly fruity and it was only after a few days that I realised what the infusion reminded me of. It smells exactly like hot exotic fruit squash like Kia-Ora or Capri Sun. My collegue suggested, less diplomatically, that it smells like when an overexcited child at a party throws up on you. I disagree but I see what he means.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Tea in Paris: Part 1

Paris. Oh, glory days!

It is a truth universally acknowledged (in Britain) that the French cannot make a cup of tea. The very worst that can happen (to the British) after a long journey through Parisian streets is to be served a cup of warm water with a Liptons tea bag perched elegantly on the saucer. The urge to shake the waiter and show him how to boil water, to pour it over a tea bag and only to remove it when the water has coloured a dark chocolate brown strikes the British most forcibly when holidaying in Europe.

So, the fact that the past week has been a veritable heaven of tea drinking is something I have had to elucidate to friends, family and many curious onlookers. What can the French teach us about tea? Well, the short answer is everything. Let me explain…

My first forays into tea drinking (of the non-CTC type) lead me very quickly to reading about the history European tea trading with Asia. That the French figured early and persistently in this trade was perhaps not surprising, but that companies such as Mariage Frères still existed and continue their trade, was. Some internet searches revealed that French people talk about tea with the same reverence as wine and that most serious tea companies have outposts in Paris and Brussels but not London.

So, despite the fact that it is very, very easy to have a bad cup of tea in France, if it is also very easy to have the best cup of tea of your life. As long as you steer clear of anywhere that claims to be a "Salon de Th
é" (this is Lipton's tea bag territory, have a coffee instead), and try some of the places listed in Tea in the City: Paris or Le Thé à Paris (available from newsagents in Paris) you'll be kept very happy whether you want tea and scones or to sample something from the biggest collection of tea outside China.
The simple fact is that the French know how to live and in the words of Christine Barbaste, "the French palate is both demanding and unfaithful - they want quality and diversity" and over time they have been quietly developing a superlative tea culture.

One of the best resources for tea is Le Palais des Thés. They are a huge company with shops all over the world (except, sigh, London). They also run a tea school - L' École Des Thés. It took me a year to finally register for the first half of their intensive course but I finally did it and it was worth the wait. More to follow....