This article is part of a guide to Paris from FT Globetrotter
It is a wintry evening in the Marais, and despite the ban on outdoor heaters, the bar terrasses are brimming with people, many smoking furiously to stay warm. Some are cradling cups of tea.
From these cups waft potent scents of fruit, flowers and smoke — all elements of thé parfumé. A blend of black or green tea leaves aromatised with various petals and essential oils, thé parfumé is sold loose in tea boutiques across Paris, some of which have accompanying salons where tea enthusiasts meet, drink and swirl their leaves mysteriously. Bars with outdoor terrasses are increasingly offering perfumed teas too, as an alcohol-free alternative or simply as a means to keep warm.
Tea first arrived in Paris from China through French East India traders in the 1630s, though the black and bitter leaves were considered coarse until a Franco-Russian tea merchant, one Monsieur Dammann, added a slice of lemon to improve the flavour — the first example of thé au citron. From here, other “perfumes” such as dried fruits, roasted herbs or flowers were added. The resulting scented drink was well received in 17th-century Paris, where perfume was exploding in popularity. Royals, including the Sun King Louis XIV, believed drinking tea was medicinal and helped their gout. It was a subject of great speculation as to how many cups a day various princesses consumed; arch-gossip Madame de Sévigné was assured by a princess that 40 cups a day was the recommended amount.
As a symbol of royalty, tea became a casualty of the French Revolution in 1789 but returned 50 years later when a wave of Anglomania swept the country. Enter Mariage Frères, a family company whose voyages to Persia and India in search of “exotic goods” paid off when it later opened a tea emporium in Paris to capitalise on the craze for an afternoon brew with tiny pastries. Today Mariage Frères has branches all over France and branches in London, Berlin and Tokyo.
“We French like to experiment with what our palates and our noses can do,” Julie Lam of another historic tea boutique, Dammann Frères, said to me on my visit. “We appreciate subtlety of flavour, we are adventurous, we like things that are mysterious, foreign or historic . . . that’s why we have this strong relationship with tea.”
Or as another Parisian put it to me: “We can’t drink wine all day.”
That said, Paris’s tea boutiques are more like wine bars than they’d care to admit. Lists of teas are extensive, flavours complex and smells exquisite. Choosing the right tea to give someone can be as difficult and pricey as finding a bottle for a discerning dinner host. Deciding on one with a friend provides as many points of conversation as ordering from a lengthy wine list.
This could be why tea is having a revival among younger Parisians who enjoy the slow, indulgent ritual of selection and savouring. Everyone I know in Paris has their preferred boutique, whether a well-known brand such as Mariage Frères or Palais des Thés, or a tucked-away artisanal shop run by a passionate local.
The five tea boutiques I’ve chosen are a mix of stylishly modern and traditional. All are independent, some have a café or terrasse for tastings, others rely on you to trust your nose. The true connoisseur brings a boîte (refillable caddy to take your tea home), stays for a chat and leaves wafting a scent trail behind them.
Betjeman & Barton (8th arrondissement)
23 Boulevard Malesherbes, 75008 Paris
Good for: Tea caddies and teapots in beautiful modern designs. Personalised shopping service
Not so good for: The shop in the 8th is located on a busy main road
FYI: There is another branch in the Marais with a café where you can try their teas
A tea sommelier at Betjeman & Barton invited me to peruse the shop’s many bell jars, arrayed like upside-down wine glasses. Each lift and sniff produced something new: a heady green tea that smelt of seaweed and smoke, and a cherry black tea aptly named Pouchkine (Pushkin). Prices range from €3 to €85 per 100g, the most expensive being a Phoenix oolong. The sommelier even suggested flavours for before, during and after meals. Just like wine.
Betjeman & Barton is more than 100 years old, but it has a modern edge and avoids anything too kitsch. Teapots and tea boîtes come in slick, funky designs, some made in collaboration with artists. The refill caddies (boîtes) make perfect gifts, as do the boxes of assorted tea flavours. Natalie recommended matching your selection to the recipient’s personality, as you might do with a perfume. This got me thinking which of my friends are oolongs, which are green and which are fruity.
Dammann Frères (4th arr.)
15 Place des Vosges, 75004 Paris
Good for: Classic Christmas gifts
Not so good for: A quiet browse. Situated on the Places de Vosges, it’s often busy
FYI: The oldest brand of tea in France. Prices range from €4.50 per 100g for a Brazilian green mate to €66 for a Sri Lankan silver bud
I followed a Parisian in running gear clutching a coloured tea caddy into Dammann Frères’ branch on the Places de Vosges. She filled the boîte up with a measure of oolong caramel au beurre salé and jogged off into the night. On investigation, I found other French flavourings permeating the Asian green and black teas: blueberry, marron glacé and a tangy citrus tea called Miss Dammann, described as “spirited and spicy like a Parisian mademoiselle”. I opted for the Thé des Mille Collines, a warming infusion with cloves and cardamom that would make a good Christmas present.
Even without my sporty guide, I would probably have been lured into Dammann. From the outside it resembles a darkly lit parfumerie; inside, it is all heavy wood beams and ladders running along high shelves. On them stand regal boxes of tea in uniforms of red, black and gold.
It was a royal order issued by Louis XIV that gave Dammann exclusivity as the first company to sell tea in France, in 1692. Its Nuit à Versailles tea (still made) was later created in tribute to the Sun King: a fragrant blend of bergamot, yellow peach, orange blossom and violet, all of which are grown in the Versailles palace gardens. Monsieur Dammann was said to press the essential oils of these ingredients into green-tea leaves between sheets of blotting paper.
Human & Tea (3rd arr.)
27 Rue de Saintonge, 75003 Paris
Good for: A cool, quirky Marais hangout — good for people-watching
Not so good for: Slightly erratic opening hours during holidays; check its Instagram
FYI: Tea in all variations imaginable and snacks are served here
Human & Tea may look like a cocktail bar with a terrasse, but it is actually a delightful café where trained tea sommeliers attend to your general wellbeing. Recently, when news of Queen Elizabeth’s death had just broken, I was brought a milky condolence “teapuccino” with the late monarch’s face stencilled on to the froth.
The teas were all very tasty and they do great cold infusions. Some are quite fruity, but then fruit teas in France are never too sweet — a cerise noir tastes more like the scent of cherry blossoms than actual cherries.
What really makes this place, though, is the bamboo-lined terrasse and its prime location for watching the fashion crowd pass by en route to hipster hotspot Le Progrès.
Lupicia (6th arr.)
40 Rue Bonaparte, 75006 Paris
Good for: The relaxing tea ceremonies in the café
Not so good for: Slightly dry cakes
FYI: This is the only branch of the Japanese company in Europe
A tea sommelier here intervened when I poured from my teapot prematurely; he suggested a minimum brewing time of seven minutes. Lupicia’s elaborate tea ceremony might be too much faff for home, for the impatient and for those who can’t be bothered to fish tea leaves out of the sink when you rinse out the pot. Which is why you hand the hard work over to the experts at this airy space in St Germain-des-Près, right down to its immaculate positioning of crockery on the table.
Included on the menu are a black tea smoked with chips of whisky barrels from Japanese distilleries, a decaffeinated cherry-blossom-infused Sri Lankan black tea (available between March and May) and Poséidon, a strong black brew with honey-preserved fruits. I was offered a demonstration of a “magical” tea that turns blue in water — they assured me this was natural, though I didn’t taste it to find out.
Thankfully the menu is not overwhelming, and an olfactory tea counter helps those who get stuck. More than 100 teas can be bought in elegant gift boxes too, as can Lupicia’s tessellated teapots.
Thé Bon Thé Bio (18th arr.)
98 Rue Caulaincourt, 75018 Paris
Good for: 70 per cent of teas here are certified organic
Not so good for: It’s a tiny shop, but packed full
FYI: Owner François Parant consults with local restaurants such L’Arcane to pair teas with food
In a corner of Montmartre tourists often neglect to explore is this charming neighbourhood tea boutique. A logbook records purchases, so customers can trace teas whose names they have forgotten. Everything here is selected with great care by founder François Parant, who travels to Japan and India to find small organic-tea producers and tableware. He says that Japanese design and tea ceremony is a natural fit for Paris because “the French, like the Japanese, are elegant”. He speaks enthusiastically about his travels, guiding you through countries and flavours. Parant is now focusing his attention on Nepal, where he has found more artisanal and ecological methods of tea production, and more earthy flavours.
I tried a lush green sencha de mai and a Kabusecha premium from Japan. Parant encouraged me to try putting the leaves into a cold infusion. The slow process (six to 12 hours) means the taste is sweeter. Boiling the leaves often brings out their bitterness.
Thé Bon Thé Bio also does consultations for local restaurants on how to match tea with meals, and how to make non-alcoholic cocktails with tea botanics It feels like it’s a trend that will only keep growing.
Who in your opinion does the best cup of tea in Paris? Tell us in the comments
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