Saturday, August 14, 2010
Tea & Books Saturday #33: "Mariage Frères French Tea"
Mariage Frères French Tea
By Alain Stella
Lots of women who've never been to France dream of going one day, but I'm not among them. I've simply never had a desire to go. When I went to England a few years back I could have signed up for an optional trip to Paris, but I said no thanks. It just didn't interest me. And I say all that just so you'll know that I approached the book "Mariage Frères French Tea" not as some starry-eyed Francophile but simply as someone who wanted to know more about the company's tea. Now, I'm so smitten by what I learned about French tea that a visit to their Rue du Bourg-Tibourg location in Paris is on my Bucket List and I can hardly believe it myself!
When I got a generous Barnes and Noble gift card as a Christmas gift last year, I knew I wanted to save it for one big, pricey volume, and this was it. I just got around to reading the book during some quiet hours this week, and wow, what a book this is! The packaging and book design of this slipcased volume are just so lovely (the book is on the left), the book itself was fun to read, and the photography -- well, more on that later.
I steeped a cup of Mariage Frères' Eros tea, the only one I've ever tried, and settled in for the adventure.
If you're like me, you never see the word "Mariage" without wanting to drop an extra "r" in the middle. I'm so glad the author got that issue out of the way early on by describing the genesis of the company name. "Contrary to expectation, the name has nothing to do with marriage or nuptials of any kind. It comes from the old French verb maréier, 'to run the seas,' mer being French for sea. In a nautical context, a maréage was a sailor's contract for the run, that is to say a set wage for a given voyage regardless of how long it lasted." The family's name was spelled different ways over the years -- Marage, Maroige, Mariage, Maraige -- and eventually Mariage became the permanent choice.
The book tells how the company evolved over the years, beginning with brothers Pierre and Nicolas Mariage, who were first to trade in "exotic goods." The author says that "in the 1660s, Pierre was sent to Madagascar on a mission for the French East India Company, while Nicolas made several trips to Persia and India before being named part of an official deputation sent by Louis XIV to sign a trade agreement with the Shah of Persia," and it is likely they were already interested in tea. Fast forward through a few centuries and you come to Marthe Cottin, born in 1901 to Léon Cottin and Marie Mariage. Marthe Cottin, who had no children, was the last member of the family to run the business and retired in 1983. I was fascinated to learn about her hand in the company and her selection of the two young men she found to serve as her successors and the company's new owners, the Dutchman Richard Bueno (who is now deceased) and Kitti Cha Sangmanee of Thailand. I was quite impressed to learn of the many tea customs and conventions for which we must thank these men. The categories of white tea, red tea, blue tea? Mariage Frères was first to designate those. The use of tea as an ingredient in cooking? Mariage Frères was first to try it (and the book includes a few of their recipes). Tea-scented candles? Mariage Frères was first to create some.
Because this book is larger than the usual volume on tea (about 10 x 9 inches), the wonderful photography is shown to great advantage. When I got to page 37 and saw Francis Hammond's magnificent photograph of a Thai Beauty tea leaf, I literally sat and stared in amazement. I've seen (and taken) so many bad photographs over the years, I am extra appreciative of good photography. How on earth he got a single tea leaf to pose so brilliantly, so seductively against that black-black background I'll never understand. Bravo!
I ended my reading of this truly amazing book with, of course, an armchair visit via the website of Mariage Frères. Until I can get to Rue du Bourg-Tibourg, it will have to do. I mean, really, who *doesn't* want to go to France one day?
A final note: I do have one beef with this book, and it's not with the subject or the author -- it's with the publisher, Flammarion. Now I am truly a "gentle reader" of my books, taking care to handle them properly, not wanting smudged or crinkled pages or broken spines. So I was not happy to find the poorly-sewn and glued pages of this book separating from the spine as I read it! For a brand new, $50 book, this is totally unacceptable, so if I had it to do over I would buy the book on the used market rather than assuming I'd get a quality book by purchasing it new.