But the tea trade also became a vital part of France’s economy and part of its aristocratic culture in the mid-17th century when King Louis XIV began encouraging French entrepreneurs and explorers to seek out and import exotic foreign goods, including teas. With the backing of France’s royal family, tea soon became a luxury good widely sought after by nation’s nobility.
One of the best-known tea emporiums in France—Mariage Freres—has its roots in this exploration of the Middle East and Asia to secure tea trade rights for France’s royal family and the French East India Company. Brothers (freres, in French) Nicholas and Pierre Mariage made several trade journeys to Madagascar, Persia and India seeking new tea sources and were key players in an official delegation sent by Louis XIV in 1660 to sign a formal trade agreement with the Shah of Persia.
Since then, successive generations of the Mariage family not only remained in the tea import business, honing their experience and knowledge of the tea trade, but also eventually helped launch, run and expand a family-owned gourmet tea wholesale company founded in Paris’s Marais district in 1854.
The Mariage Freres Tea Company supplied high-end tea to many of Paris’s finest hotels and tea shops throughout France for nearly 130 years. But in 1983, a new management team hired by the Freres family helped transform Mariage Freres from a wholesale business to a retail seller of gourmet teas.
New tea shops and tea salons were opened throughout Paris, including the flagship emporium and salon on Rue du Bourg-Tibourg in the space where the company’s very first office was located. This Marais shop was redesigned in the style of a mid-1800s tea salon and boutique, complete with authentic 19th century furniture, cash registers, tea containers, sales counters and other pieces used by tea merchants—many coming from the Mariage family’s former offices.
Today, the company operates more than 30 tea shops and salons (including sales counters in luxury department stores) throughout France, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan. Agreements with other luxury goods’ distributors bring Mariage Freres products to another 60 nations where they are available from resellers and at such renowned businesses as the Claridge’s five-star hotel in London, the Mandarin Oriental Hotels in Thailand and Singapore, and Japan Airlines.
In Paris, there are eight Mariage Freres boutiques and five additional high-end department store counters that offer some (and in a few cases all) of the more than 600 loose-leaf teas from around the world that the company sells . Many come in prepackaged souvenir-ready tins, but there are hundreds you can purchase by the gram, including the company’s best seller—Marco Polo, a flowery full-bodied black tea. Expert sales clerks are familiar with every brand and are happy to direct you to new blends based on your preferences.
There also are four fantastic Mariage Freres tea salons in the City of Light that draw scores of locals and tourists alike—the 30 Rue du Bourg-Tibourg flagship shop in the Marais (Metro: Hotel de Ville); 260 Rue du Faubourg Saint Honore in the 8th Arrondissement near the Arc de Triomphe (Metro: Ternes); 13 Rue des Grands Augustins in the Latin Quarter (Metro: Saint Michel/Odeon); and the Carrousel du Louvre near the famed museum (Metro: Palais Royal-Musee du Louvre). All steep and serve hundreds of the company’s teas (the choices are depicted in a thick menu book presented at each table), as well as an array of brunch, lunch and high tea staples, including delicious scones, muffins, pastries and other desserts. You can order sweet treats off the menu, but many patrons instead request to see the dessert cart (le chariot), which is heaped with delicious goodies, all of which the wait staff will describe in painstaking detail and in perfect English.
(But be warned, the food and drinks are not inexpensive: Be prepared to spend 10-20 euros on dessert, 22-40 euros for afternoon tea packages, 25-30 euros for lunch items, and 34-56 euros for brunch packages.)
All of the tea salons are well worth a visit. But if you’re going to stop in for a bite and a spot of tea, you really should check out the Rue du Bourg-Tibourg emporium. The flagship salon is gorgeous, steeped in history and a perfect slice of elegance in a city that prides itself on its opulence and grandiosity.
The Bourg-Tibourg Mariage Freres shop is open from 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily, while the salon restaurant serves lunch/brunch from noon-6:30 p.m. daily and offers afternoon tea packages daily from 3-6:30 p.m.