France's silent tea revolution
- 20 April 2014
- From the section Magazine
Ordering a cup of tea in Paris is a bit like asking for pastis in a British pub. You probably won't get what you came for.
The standard response is a glass accompanied by a small pot of water and a bag. Milk, if insisted upon, normally arrives hot.
For generations in France, the search for an acceptable cuppa has been an obsession of expatriated Brits.
Shops are no help. Supermarkets sell boxes of weak "style Anglaise" tea-bags that wouldn't pass muster across the Channel.
People survive by buying on the internet, making the trip to Marks and Spencer (thankfully re-opened), or cadging consignments from visiting friends.
And yet all the while, France has been undergoing a silent tea revolution.
Hard to believe for a country supposedly devoted to the cult of coffee, but today French blends are the toast of tea cognoscenti from Nanjing to New York.
Backed by multi-million-euro advertising, the Paris-based Kusmi tea is a staple of airport duty-frees, and with its new flagship store on the Champs-Elysees has seen turnover multiply by six in the last few years.
Other historic brands like Mariage Freres and Dammann are also fast expanding, selling online and opening stores across the globe.
And inside France a sudden fashion for tea has swept the middle classes. Specialist tea salons are spreading, in Paris and beyond. People take classes to learn how to taste and to serve. Literally hundreds of varieties and blends are now available for sale.
To be clear - French tea is not British tea.
The tannin-rich dark and heavy brew beloved of the British household finds few takers. A mug of industrially produced brickies' char would have Parisians gagging.
What the French are developing is something altogether more refined and delicate - as befits their gastronomic heritage.
"When you go to the auctions in China, you can spot the British. They are the ones buying 1,000 tonnes of this, 1,000 tonnes of that," says Didier Jumeau-Lafond of Dammann Teas, based in Dreux, west of Paris.
"When we buy, it's maybe 10 chests, max! The Brits want the cheapest prices. We just want the best quality. Ours is a niche market, but it's a niche that is growing fast."
Dammann is an ancient company. Its origins (so they claim - though it is disputed) go back to the days of Louis XIV. In modern times it helped usher in the French tea revolution by developing a vast range of scented blends.
"My mother was Russian," says Jumeau-Lafond, whose father relaunched the company after World War Two. "And she loved Earl Grey scented with orange blossom. This became our Russian Blend. Then we started trying all sorts of other fruit and flower fragrances. Some time in the 70s, the Japanese started coming to Paris - and they realised that French tea suited their palates far more than English tea."
For many years Dammann produced teas (scented and non-scented) exclusively for luxury Paris delicatessens like Hediard and Fauchon. But recently it was bought by the Italian coffee company Illy, and now produces teas under its own brand-name. Exports are increasing by 30% a year.
Meanwhile inside France, a new generation of health- and fashion-conscious consumers has begun discovering the world of tastes that tea can open up.
"The French are always interested in the origins of what they eat and drink, and in the cultures that produced it," says Francois-Xavier Delmas, founder of the Le Palais des Thes chain of tea shops.
"We see it exactly like wine. We can explore the tastes of tea exactly like we explore the tastes of wine. We can produce different colours, vintages, new growth, single garden, fermented teas - exactly like with wine.
"Today we even advise Michelin-starred restaurants on how to serve tea instead of wine. It goes excellently with some types of cheese. And these days many business-people don't want to drink alcohol at lunch, so a vintage tea is the perfect alternative.
"The joy is that it is all for the French a re-discovery. For centuries we have had no real contact with tea. So unlike you British, we formed no habits. This means we can learn about tea as a pure, new product."
The French - it turns out - have a tea tradition that is every bit as venerable as the British. It's just that they lost it.
Tea first came to Paris via the Dutch in the 17th Century, a few years before it arrived in London.
Originally it was used as a health-giving drink. Cardinal Mazarin - chief minister to the young Louis XIV - took it for his gout.
Later the famous court letter-writer Madame de Sevigne wrote of how a certain Monsieur de Landgrave "drank 40 cups every morning" and that though he was very ill it "brought him back to life before our eyes".
Madame de Sevigne is also often quoted as providing evidence that the French were the first to put milk in their tea.
In fact what she wrote was that Madame de Sabliere "took tea with her milk", which is not quite the same thing.
By the time of the revolution tea had become part of the aristocratic way of life, and it was beginning to spread to the bourgeoisie.
In 1796 Napoleon would write to Josephine: "Not one cup of tea have I taken without cursing the glory and the ambition that keeps me away from the soul of my life."
An indication of how common the drink was is that a right-wing political newspaper of the time went by the name of Le Thé.
According to Napoleon's biographer Philip Dwyer, newspaper hawkers were able to play on the title by yelling out "Qui veut du the? Il est fort le the!" (Who wants some tea? It's strong stuff, The Tea!")
In the 19th Century - with its periodic outbursts of Anglomania - tea became a passion for the well-off, who indulged themselves with expensive porcelain tea-sets and visits to "salons de the" in Biarritz and on the Riviera.
"Strange to say, there were more salons de the in France than in the UK. But that is because the British drank at home. We had to go somewhere special to take it," says tea historian Gilles Brochard.
And therein of course lies the great difference. In the UK, tea was and remains a genuinely popular drink. In France it was the preserve of a wealthy few - and in the first half of the 20th Century, even their interest began to dwindle.
"When I was a child, there were only two types of people who drank tea in France - invalids and aristocrats," says Jumeau-Lafond.
"But then about 20 years ago, first of all there was a spate of articles in the press about how coffee was bad for you. People started looking for a replacement. They tried tea, and found they liked it.
"And then there's the snob element. People love to have something that is a bit different. And there are so many French teas, you will always find one particular blend or flavour that is yours."
So the answer to the frustrated British expat is clear.
Stop looking for what you are not going to get. Buy the "a la Francaise". It's almost certainly far better than anything you have had before.