Paris is justly renowned for its exceptional gastronomy. Visitors are famously transported by the availability of rich chocolates, luscious cheeses, revelatory wines, redolent coffees, gem-like fruit tarts, and much, much more.
But tea? Most of us have not typically thought of Paris and fine tea as being synonymous. Across the Channel, yes, but not in the capital of this nation of espresso addicts. And yet the fortunate few who have discovered the French Art of Tea might very well put the remarkable variety of character-rich shops selling the finest and rarest brews, and the variety of tea-salons specializing in serving them, at the very top of their lists of Parisian favourites.
Tea enthusiasts worldwide know of the tea treasures available from such venerable firms as Mariage Frères, Betjeman and Barton, Fauchon, Hediard and Kousmi Teas. And sophisticated Parisian salons such as Ladurée are justly famed for combining lovely teas with exquisite patisserie and elegant ambiance.
But as diverting as all these choices are for the tea-lover, there are other many lesser-known tea-centred establishments. And one of those, in particular, is virtually worth a journey to Paris, at least for those who appreciate the crème-de-la-crème of Chinese and Taiwanese brews.
La Maison des Trois Thés, the sleekly serene architect-designed boutique of tea master Yu Hui Tseng, is the prime Parisian source for literally hundreds of the rarest blue-vert (Oolong) teas, as well as for white, yellow and aged black teas. Tseng, whose palate for tea is world-renowned, is the only woman among the elite company of 10 living Chinese tea masters.
A recent interview in Paris with Tseng included an exquisite tasting opportunity. Accompanied by her associate, Fabien Maiolino, who comes to the world of tea from a career in the wine industry, she talked about her passion for Chinese teas, and touched on her commitment to finding, aging, selling and serving the very finest.
Tseng is a member of a Taiwanese family that has been associated with the business of growing and selling quality teas for generations. During her six months of travel in China and Taiwan each year, Tseng visits selected small-scale artisanal growers who meet her exacting specifications for quality. Once she selects them, her teas are brought to the Paris shop for immediate sale, or for aging in special basement chambers designed for optimal temperature and humidity control.
When you enter the serenely beautiful La Maison des Trois Thés, you will be presented with a short list of the types of tea currently in stock, and then encouraged to discuss the available selections (usually more than 400). The tea list changes frequently. And while you will find teas on offer that cost, gram-for-gram, more than caviar, there are likewise many choices that are easily affordable.
Indeed, the shop has a devoted following, including students from the many schools in the surrounding Latin Quarter. For the equivalent of $2 to $3 a day, customers can progressively educate their palates to appreciate the wide range of subtle tastes offered by these fine teas.
During my visit to Trois Thés, a jasmine tea brewed from pure jasmine flowers was a standout. In its aromatic richness, it was so unlike the typical jasmine teas available commercially that it seemed like an entirely different beverage. Several blue-vert varieties were also brewed for tasting. While all were delicious, perhaps the most memorable was the Ling Tou Mi Lan Xiang, which had an array of clear, pure flavours, including litchi, mango, and grapefruit.
The tasting-session finished with an aged Pu Erh tea. The flavours of the deep-brown brew were reminiscent of the musky, autumnal, mushroomy scents of fallen leaves. The intense flavour, Tseng stated, was the result of 32 years of careful aging. And this exceptional elixir comes from a single tree, the exact whereabouts of which is strictly confidential.The conversation turned to the similarities between tea and fine wines. Tseng and Maiolino talked about the importance of understanding terroir, or conditions that contribute to the personality of tea, and of training one's palate to taste the multilayered flavours of these unique brews. Indeed, several sommeliers at top Paris hotels are currently working with Maiolino and Tseng to learn more about their fine teas, with the aim of pairing them with after-dinner drinks such as single-malt whiskies, or French eau-de-vies. And famed chefs, including Pierre Gagnaire, use Tseng's teas in their innovative menus.
Pack your bags
La Maison de Trois Thés: 33 rue Gracieuse (at rue Médard); 33 (1) 4336 9384. The boutique is open daily, except Mondays, from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Teas can be tasted on site from 1 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Weekends are busy, and it is best to reserve one of the few tables to avoid disappointment.
In addition to on-site shopping and sampling, tea can be ordered by mail. The shop also sells exquisite limited-production porcelain teapots crafted in historically accurate Chinese styles and colours.