A few weeks ago Coffee Boy and I popped to Paris on our way to Berlin. It sounds very extravagant but actually, because for once I was organised, the journey cost us less than our usual flights to Berlin (perhaps I could learn something from this...). It gave me the perfect excuse to visit Mariage Frères - the mother of all French Salons de Thé. Sixteen years ago we used to live in Paris but I had no more than a passing interest in tea in those days so I'd never even heard of Mariage Frères at that time, let alone visited.
There are a number of branches throughout the city, but on Sunday we were using the excellent Vélib' scheme to cycle through the Marais so we decided to visit the tea room there. I was actually pretty excited about my visit - so many people have asked me over the last few tea-obsessed years whether I have been, it was hard to believe it was finally happening. Perhaps it was all that expectation, or perhaps it was being spoilt by so many amazing tea emporia in Japan last year, but I have to confess, I was a teensy bit disappointed.
You enter through a shop with an amazing selection of tea. The shelves stretch up to the ceiling and they're laden with huge black tea caddies. There are also some beautiful cups, teapots and tins to feast your eyes on as you stand waiting for a table in the smallish tea room at the back. We managed to time our visit quite well and waited only a few minutes before a little corner table became free. The tea room itself was, I thought, no great shakes. Painted a sunny yellow with a large palm in the centre below a skylight it was pleasant enough but certainly not amazing. It was a great spot for people watching though: I had assumed it'd be full of tourists, and it had its fair share, but there were plenty of bourgeois French ladies out for a gentle afternoon's sugar-fix that provided some added entertainment.
Faced with a frankly breathtaking list of teas it was hard to know where to begin. I decided to go for a black tea and was in the mood for something a little bit smokey so opted for one of the house blends called Roi Soleil. CB is not such a fan of the smoky teas (which was just as well as I wanted to try more than one) so he chose another house blend called Fils de France.
We were a bit overwhelmed when it came to choosing what sweet stuff to have, especially after having worked our way through the list of about 300 teas, so we chose a selection called "Time for Tea" (bet that pleases the Académie Française...). There was a vitrine with some nice looking cakes and there were various descriptions of desserts on the menu but we figured that our English monikered selection would let us try a bit of lots of things and we could stop reading the menu into the bargain.
Our tea was first to arrive and it was pretty amazing. Both blends were really delicious: mine was light and bright yet with an underscore of smokiness; CB's was effectively like a black jasmine tea - unusual but lovely. What made it taste even better was that each of the teas came out of one of those china pots with a metal cosy clipped on - I love those! Then our sweet stuff arrived. It was, how can I say this without sounding like a greedy pig, a bit on the small side. OK, I know there were five different things on the plate; and each thing was pretty darn tasty; but I have become accustomed to the English afternoon tea that comes on a cake stand laden with enough sugary delights to sink a battleship. True, you may not be able to finish them all but you can have a bloody good go trying. This though was clearly an altogether more refined affair. I know there have been books written about how French women keep their figures by only eating until they've had enough and never having a blow-out but if you can't stuff up on afternoon tea once in a while I wonder if life is really worth living (over-the-top about tea? Moi?).
So, what did our little plate feature? A little shot glass full of raspberry custard and gelée which was very creamy and really delicious; a tiny little lemony Madeleine which was good; a mini-pistachio loaf which had a nice piquant flavour; a petit creme brulee with almost caramelised cream and a delicate but crisp crust; and finally a little vanilla macaron which was rich but not amazing. Do I sound slightly underwhelmed? I guess I was. And CB's disappointment at the meagre portions only served to confirm my feeling that this wasn't the tea experience of my life. Of course, it could have been that we chose poorly. We saw a number of people eating a dessert-like chocolate confection that was covered with an entire square of gold leaf that looked pretty amazing - in fact we saw a lot of the dames-qui-déjeunent eating them so perhaps it's one of those signature dishes that you need to be in the know about. If I ever went back that is definitely what I'd try. And going back isn't out of the question. The tea itself was really pretty amazing and it might be that another branch has a more "special" feel.
Before leaving we had a little look around the shop where I decided to purchase a tin of the Roi Soleil, partly because it was lovely and partly because I have a sad obsession with tea tins. I managed to snap a couple of photos before being told off by a member of staff (note raised hand). I was only snapping with my iPhone and I was pretty pleased I hadn't realised before as I'd been busily clicking away in the tea room - including asking the chaps on the table next to us if I could snap their beautiful flowering jasmine tea.
Now, I don't want to give the impression I didn't enjoy my trip to Mariage Frères as there were lots of things about it that were good. I was just, as I said, a bit underwhelmed. I'm glad I've finally been (and I've got the tea tin to prove it) but it wasn't quite what I was expecting. I think the problem is that I've just had so many really great afternoon teas I'm becoming more and more difficult to please and that is especially the case when paying over £15 for the privilege. I wouldn't want to put anyone off as the tea selection alone if worth experiencing but perhaps don't let yourself get quite as excited as I did before going (probably not hard). Nonetheless, the weekend as a whole was fabulous and now I have a new mission for next time I return: to find the ultimate Parisian afternoon tea experience. Watch this space.