The taste is unlike any tea I’ve ever known. It’s a rich blending of flavors that stays with you long after you’ve reached the bottom of the cup. It’s an aroma that perfumes the air from the moment you open the canister to the first sip of the morning. And it comes in such an astounding variety that if you tried a different blend every day, it would take at least two years to taste them all.
I’ve been a passionate tea drinker all of my adult life, but it wasn’t until four years ago that I discovered Mariage Frères. Herb and I were on vacation, having lunch at a La Tarte Tropézienne in Saint-Tropez, when I spotted the stunning black Mariage Frères canisters in a display with other food items. I picked up a few for gifts and one for myself, opting for French Breakfast because the shop didn’t carry my usual favorite, English Breakfast. It was one of those moments when you have no idea what a treasure you have just stumbled upon.
I carefully parceled out my Mariage Frères tea leaves in the weeks after returning home. It’s harder to find – and more expensive – in the U.S. There are retail outlets in London, Germany, Japan and France. In Tokyo and Paris, there are Mariage Frères Restaurants & Tea Rooms, including the original Marais location on rue du Bourg-Tibourg, where the Mariage Brothers had their offices more than 150 years ago.
I must have spent weeks planning the pilgrimage to my Mariage Frères mothership. We would have one day in Paris on an excursion from Honfleur, arriving in time for lunch at the original Marais location. Herb joked that I should bring a separate suitcase just for the tea. And in classic Lucy Ricardo fashion, I mentioned that I might also need room for a Mariage Frères teapot!
The skies in Honfleur were overcast that morning as we boarded the bus for the three-hour journey. There were about twenty of us from the Crystal Symphony who were heading to Paris on personal adventures, and we shared the bus with a group going on a guided tour. As we left the harbor, the group’s tour guide made an announcement: The Seine River was so high that boats were no longer able to navigate under the bridges. Their river tour would be changed to a tour of Notre Dame. And if any of us going on our own were planning to visit a museum, we should be aware that the Louvre and D’Orsay were closed to enable workers to move works of art to higher ground.
Everyone on the bus seemed stunned. We had heard news reports and had seen the high water levels in Honfleur, but I don’t think anyone really knew it was that serious. As we reached the edge of the city, the gravity of the flooding became clear.
The bus stopped for a quick photo opp at the Eiffel Tower before dropping us off near the Pont Alexandre III. As Herb and I began our 30-minute walk toward the Marais, we tried to wrap our heads around what we were seeing. The lower walkway along the Seine was completely under water. Boats that once carried passengers under the famous Paris bridges were sitting empty along the riverbank. It was almost as if the beautiful city was calling out amid the muck and the mud and the grim skies overhead. Don’t pay any attention to what you are seeing…I’m still Paris!
We turned at the Hotel de Ville, headed down the rue de Rivoli and into the old narrow streets of the Marais. Around the corner on the rue du Bourg-Tibourg was Mariage Frères, an elegant building with a beautiful wooden façade and a gold-lettered sign. An arched window displayed tea canisters in blue, white and red in honor of the upcoming Bastille Day.
Walking through the door was like stepping into another place and time. Rows of tea canisters lined polished wooden shelves, like an old-world bookshop. Glass display cases housed antique-looking silver and crystal teapots along with the more modern Mariage Frères signature dishware. There was even a little window where a cashier sat.
Beyond the shop was the restaurant, a light-filled atrium-like space with wicker chairs and white linens. Our waiter seated us at a small table set with Mariage Frères dishes and brought the brand’s The French Art of Tea book for us to peruse as well as menus. The tea selection was overwhelming – our waiter said they carried all 650 choices! We decided on Paris Breakfast, since, well, we were in Paris, and chose the chicken entrée infused in a sauce prepared with Marco Polo tea.
The whole experience was beyond anything I could have imagined. Elegant but not at all stuffy. Lovely and special-meal-worthy, yet casual. Friendly, yet almost whisper-quiet. The word that kept coming to mind was exquisite.
After lunch we went to the shop to pick out some teas. The shopkeeper opened large canisters of loose teas we were interested in, allowing us to smell the unique aromas. Mariage Frères also carries tea bags – muslin sachets tied with string – packaged in beautiful black boxes – and special blends for making iced tea. I bought teapots like the ones used at our table for ourselves and our daughter, gifts for friends and family and a fresh supply of French Breakfast along with my new discovery, Paris Breakfast.
What impressed me as much as the tea itself was the care and thought the shopkeeper gave our purchases. Everything was neatly wrapped for travel, packed with tissue and sealed with the signature yellow-and-black Mariage Frères stickers. The teapots were snugly secured in gift boxes, and everything was placed in handled shopping bags which were covered with plastic to protect them from rain. It was the type of service I would have expected to find at a place and time from long ago. Exquisite.
Before leaving, I climbed a narrow wooden staircase to the Mariage Frères Tea Museum, located above the shop. The tiny space was filled with memorabilia, tea equipment and accessories from the early days of the company. Like the shop and restaurant below, everything was beautifully presented.
Our meeting spot near the Pont Alexandre III was extremely crowded when we rejoined our bus. It was Friday afternoon, traffic leaving the city was intense and our guide told us we may need to stop along the way for our driver to take a legally required 45-minute break after driving a certain number of hours.
The traffic, the flooding, the long drive back to Honfleur. None of that really mattered to me. This was Paris, after all.