The History of French Tea
Without the Mariage family, the experience of tea in France and throughout the Western world would be quite a different one. With a history of three centuries, a family name that can be connected to Louis XIV and the effort of two young visionaries, the fine purveyor Mariage Frères has reinvented the art of taking tea and created its own trend: French tea.
If you’ve ever had a cup of Thé des Poètes Solitaires or Thé Rouge Bourbon in Paris or Tokyo, you are familiar with the company’s highly refined world of teas, which includes rare tea accessories and exceptional tea and food pairings. You’re aware of the famous scent that tickles your imagination and makes your mind wander to countries far away. The fragrance is produced by a conglomerate of some of the finest teas in the world: such as Opium Hill, a blue Thai tea; Neige de Jade, a white Darjeeling tea; and Gyokuro “Precious Dew,” a fine green Japan tea.
Etymologically, their last name refers to the French verb “maréier” or “to run the seas.” The Mariage family’s roots can be traced to merchants from Lille who started in the Eastern Trade in the 17th century, trading exotic goods. In the 1660s, one Nicolas Mariage was sent by Louis XIV to trade with the Shah of Persia, while his brother Pierre traded on behalf of the French East India Company.
When tea became a popular beverage within wealthy French circles, the Mariage were among the top dealers who imported and sold it. The main import was green tea from China used for health purposes. As tea became a fashionable pastime of the aristocracy, so did luxurious tea cups, pots and other utensils. At the same time in England, tea was becoming popular, but in comparison to France, less aristocratic circles came to have access to it and it quickly became part a of the average person’s lifestyle.
In 1854, Mariage Frères was founded as a tea and vanilla import firm, soon supplying prestigious hotels, salons and stores with fine teas from China, India and Ceylon. Not much changed until the early 1980s when the last of the family, Marthe Cottin, then in her 80s and without a successor, ran the business the way she had learned it from her father and grandfather. New blood came in the shape of two young men, Richard Bueno and Kitti Cha Sangmanee. Sangmanee realized that for the business to grow, they would have to offer only the finest product available, a tea they saw as “French-style tea.”
Today, Mariage Frères tea houses are in Paris, London, Berlin and Tokyo. At number 30 rue du Bourg-Tibourg in the artsy Marais district of Paris, tea lovers enter a very refined world, but a comfortable well-aged one full of history. There are hundreds of tea canisters and the tea is weighed on the same old scales. In the restaurant, patrons enjoy classics like the “snob salad” (with salmon and foie gras) and tarts the “Colonial” pastry cart, while upstairs in the museum lies the family’s personal collection of old labels, boxes and crates and precious tea service pieces.