Your humble author – well, author at least – sits here at his keyboard writing what is for a Brit, semi-Americanized though he may be, a painful acknowledgement:
The best tea shops in the world and places to enjoy afternoon tea are French.
There, it’s done.
French firms lead the high end of the market in many areas of unusual flavored teas. A good place to try them is London. Go to Selfridges, one of the definitive British department stores. Trip lightly down to the basement and enjoy the teas and carbohydrate fest of gateaux and petits fours offered by the gourmet French teahouse located there.
French names have supplanted English upper class and snob appeal labels like Harrods and Fortnum and Mason as the epitome of haute couture tea ambience. The Claridge hotel, the extreme of English elite, serves only teas from a French retailer.
French tea is designer tea. Many of the blends merit the term exotic. They tend to use good but not outstanding tea and add lots of sweetness and aroma to it. Here are a few examples that are very different indeed from the mainstream English tradition:
A Chinese blend with a scent of buffalo grass. You may well ask what this is. A costly vernal grass, curled and drooping and highly drought-resistant. You might add: why use grass in tea? That would be a very good question.
A Chinese sencha-tea with orange, cinnamon, liquorice and sea buckthorn. Strange but interesting: Sencha is mainly a light Japanese green tea. Cinnamon and liquorice make it much like a candy. Your next question: buckthorn is what? A shrub that grows in weird places and flourishes in dry sand, widely used in ancient days to stop weight loss in horses.
A blend of Chinese greens, spearmint leaves and seaweed. Yes, seaweed.
Whether these work for you is open to experiment. Certainly, they are not standard tea blend combinations.
French tea: In fashion much earlier than in Britain
Much of this may sound like French companies muscling in on English heritage and preserve, with its claims to historical pedigree, the implied art of the blender and the trappings of social superiority.
But in actuality, the French got there way before the English. Britain was a late comer to tea, preceded by the Dutch, Portuguese and French. In each nation, the initial pattern was the same: a luxury good, drank in a ceremonial style by the utmost upper class.
Only in Britain did tea become the national drink across all classes of society. That in itself helps explain the modern French brands. Because tea did not become a daily commodity, there was no drive for mass market production and marketing, but an emphasis instead on selectivity and differentiation, with aromas and complex tastes more culinary than blended.
The French upper class adopted tea far earlier than the English. That ended when many aristos lost their heads, literally so, in the French Revolution that also halted the emerging adoption of tea by the bourgeoisie. But for a century tea was as much part of French as British upper class society.
Well-known historical devotees included Louis XIV, Madame de Sevigne, the 17th century aristocratic equivalent of a TV late night show for the literati and the first to mention adding milk and sugar to tea; Napoleon; and Marcel Proust, the neurasthenic author of one of the most famous references to tea in literature. There was a long continuity in the French heritage.
But it was a high end, specialty heritage. In the 19th century, there were far more salons de thé than teahouses in England. The British drank their tea at home. French tea was a dining out occasion demanding something distinctive and special. That still holds and permits blenders to create their unusual mixes.
It’s illustrated by a comment by a professional tea buyer from a French firm just a few years ago about the tea auctions that have been the core of the industry. Bidders easily recognize the representatives from British firms. “They are the ones buying 1,000 tonnes of this, 1,000 tonnes of that… When we buy, it’s maybe 10 chests, max! The Brits want the cheapest prices. We just want the best quality.”
The general lessons for finding really good flavored teas
There’s a “however” to all this. French tea is superb but, however, French tea is truly dreadful.
There’s no contradiction here. In Britain, China, India, Turkey, Iran, Russia and other countries which rank high in consumption per capital, tea is predominantly part of ordinary, everyday life. In France, the Mediterranean and Latin America it is very much out of the ordinary. A stale and dank tea bag in lukewarm water is very much the hallmark of tea in a rural French restaurant, just as the hotel in Lima serves up a choice of manzanilla, anis or the te negro of strange composition that is unique (one hopes).
This is a special example of a general and growing feature of the tea industry: the gap between specialty and commodity. In England and the US, it shows up as the contrast between the increasing mediocrity of tea bags and blends as cost, volume and automated harvesting and processing drive the economics of the industry and the counter improvement in the availability of superb whole leaf teas from India, Japan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Indonesia and China. You won’t find superb teas on the mass market supermarket tea bag and iced tea shelves; you have to look for it.
What the French specialty niche points to is that you won’t find many outstanding flavored teas on the shelf, either. Maybe you should look to the gourmet stores and online for them. If you like, for example, Earl Grey, are you getting the best or putting up with the so-so? Indian blenders are producing some excellent Earl Greys. China’s jasmine oolongs, green pearls and Dragon Phoenix are subtle, soothing and so, so aromatic. Is it worth spending a few cents per evening more for a top rate tisane for your bedtime brew instead of a herbal tea that tastes stale even when it’s fresh?
French teas and the Gallic style of high tea elegance that goes with it are illustrative of the crafting of fine flavored tea. This demands skillful balancing between tea and flavor, with both used to expand the aroma of the flavors, the initial taste pleasing “mouthfeel” of the tea itself, then the teasing floral and fruit overtones.
And mass market “English” tea is by and large pretty poor in this regard. It is the end product of two centuries of democratization of tea, with tremendous historical benefits. The luxury good that in the late 1600s cost the equivalent today of $1,600 a pound is now a $30 commodity. British supermarkets are full of deals of, for example, 160 teabags for under $3 – 5 cents a cup. At this price, that comes down to blending the cheapest teas using standardized formulae. Low end Earl Greys in particular are a battle in the bag between tea and fruit.
The French label is the newer style. It’s emblematic of a global pattern. All the elite brands, specialty suppliers and whole leaf sourcers and sellers include their own custom, small batch Earl Greys. They need to, simply because the name dominates so much of the market. They may not use buffalo grass and buckthorn but Darjeeling-crafted Earl Greys share the same approach as do elite China and Taiwan expert creators of flower petal infused oolongs and greens. The French have in effect branded the style as much as England branded everyday black tea blends from many countries.
Ah well, time for an Old Brit to rally. A breakfast fry up or kippers, with an unflavored Margaret’s Hope Darjeeling tea; a ploughman’s for lunch with pickled onions or shepherd’s pie made of real shepherds (washed down with a big Ceylon Kenilworth); and then an evening rewatching the English Rugby team beat France 31-21 to win the Six Nations Grand Slam in 2016. A dinner of the staple English national dish of choice, an Indian roghan josh curry with onion bhaji and pappadoms, followed by a bedtime Silver Needle white tea.
Vive la Différence.