Picture yourself in the midst of romantic Paris. You’ve strolled along the Seine, taken in the view from atop the Eiffel Tower, enjoyed the delights of a French pâtisserie, and now you sit outside a Parisian café with a cup of… tea?
Wait, aren’t the French all about coffee? This is Paris, after all, not London!
It may be true that France has long had a love affair with the café, but the tea culture in France is much stronger – and older – than you’d likely expect. And it’s making a comeback. Can we expect to see teahouses springing up across France? To answer that question, we’ll take a look at where French tea got its start, and where it’s headed today.
France, First on the Tea Bandwagon
The year is 1636, and the setting is 17th Century Paris. 22 years before the English would discover the drink for themselves, tea leaves have made their way across the French border and have started a lot of buzz among the French aristocracy.
At the time, tea drinking was considered medicinal; both King Louis XIV and Cardinal Mazarin (the second most powerful man in France) believed it would help alleviate their gout and drank it regularly. The appealing taste was more than enough to keep it circulating among the aristos, and it became popular not for its benefits, but as an enjoyable beverage. Some even speculate that many firm English traditions, such as taking tea in the afternoon and preparing it with milk, all began in France.
Unlike England, however, tea-drinking never trickled down to the lower classes, remaining almost exclusively an aristocratic indulgence. As civil unrest mounted into revolution, tea was dismissed as one of many symbols of the hated upper class. It also lost ground in the medicinal market as it was replaced by more respected herbal teas, such as chamomile, verbena and sage. When the monarchy crumbled, virtually all of France’s interest in tea went with it.
Tea did see a revival in France in the mid 1800’s thanks to a sudden interest in all things English (commonly called Anglomania). Dozens of salons de the (tea salons) appeared at the time, where tea was served in a very formal affair designed for quiet enjoyment. Yet for whatever reason, tea never made the leap to being enjoyed at home as it is in England, the reason many speculate it was prevented from becoming more popular until recently.
French Tea Tastes and Practices
Ask a Brit what makes a good tea, and you’ll typically get the same answer – the stronger, the better. Of course, since that tea is typically served with sugar and milk, it would need to be quite strong to avoid being overpowered.
Not so with French tea. The French may prefer their coffee strong and abrasive, but when it comes to a good cup of tea, lighter and complex is the order of the day. In fact, the French approach to tea is similar to that of wine: an emphasis on quality, taste and variety. Instead of having a “standard tea”, French salons and tea companies offer an astonishing number of blends and varieties. One need only choose the right tea to suit their taste.
So next time you find yourself wandering the Parisian streets, track down a local salons de the and discover what the famous French palate calls a good cup of tea. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised. Besides, French tea comes with something no other country may ever be able to match: the perfect croissant.
Have you had the chance to try French tea? What was your experience? Tell us about it in the comments below!