Tea and the French

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It is said that History is written by the victors. But I suppose that must mean ‘official’ histories because every person, every culture, has ‘their’ narrative and perspective.

Fortunately for the non-victorious, an empathetic approach to history in postmodern times has allowed for a great deal of rethinking and retelling, especially in terms of cultural history.

It was therefore with increasing surprise and intrigue that I read a short book about the history of tea as I partook of a delightful green leaf Japanese tea in that temple to tealeaves in the heart of Paris, Mariage Frères.

They take their tea very seriously in Mariage Frères. I once asked for a coffee which nearly caused an apoplectic fit on the the part of a waiter. As a sign of serious seriousness, the tealeaves are removed from the pot once the tea is perfectly brewed before it is served. Despite the huge and generous pots, there is no chance of encountering stewed tea by the end.

This perfection approach had always slightly puzzled me. How could the French get it right in Mariage Frères when tea generally in France is insipid and unappetising? (I submit in evidence those yellow packets of Lipton’s English Breakfast Tea). Not just get it right, but get it even better than, say, Betty’s (northern bastion of great tea) or Fortnum’s (southern bastion of tea)?

Surely the English are the tea-nation of the world? Well, we may think we are, but the French got there first. Not as early as the Dutch, but still 14 years before us. 1636, to be precise.

Imagine that. Who would have thought it? I feel quite humbled by this newfound knowledge. It seems there were a fair few East India Companies.

At least I can now put tea in its correct cultural context. It was a worthwhile pitstop.

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