I have lived in France as a British expat for nineteen years now, I speak French, have a French husband, two little (half) French boys, and I live fully emerged in the French culture. Being British brings up its fair share of questions at dinners and parties, and one recurrent theme has been ‘tea time’, proving to be two English words that most French people know, a cultural ritual that intrigues them greatly, and definitely a practice that attracts the travelled Frenchman. Questions include “Do you drink tea?”, “What do you eat at tea time?”, “Does the queen drink tea?”, because of course being British it is expected of me to love the Queen and know several facts about her and her favourite things.
When I arrived at sixteen in 1998 the French seemed to me to be hardened coffee drinkers, the Frenchman at his local café would drink his morning espresso, reading his paper and smoking a cigarette – no myth. To drink tea would be so out of the ordinary twenty years ago that should I visit the home of a tea drinker, they would reach for their boxes of tea in the cupboard and flash them at me like a member’s card. France has moved on since then, and you no longer need to be a fan of the queen or know a British person to have tea in your cupboard. The French are slowly becoming tea connoisseurs, and curious ones at that; they want to do it right, learn a little about the trade, it’s history, and of course how to drink it. Long standing French tea brands are even setting up ‘tea schools’ that offer courses in tea rituals, tasting, and how to pair tea gastronomically (of course).
Tea consumption in France is on the up, it has tripled in the past twenty years, and French tea brands are now making their marks in international territories. Specialist French tea brands such as Mariage Frères, Kusmi tea, Frères Damman or le Palais des thés, to name a few, now have specialist boutiques in places like Tokyo, New York and Berlin, becoming French ambassadors for French tea. These pillars of French tea have a true claim to heritage as their brands often go back centuries, tea was drunk at the court of Versailles for example, and one of my absolute favourite tea shops in Paris still makes the tea ordered by Marie Antoinette in the seventeenth century! ‘Nina’s’ made tea for the famous French queen using produce from the Royal orchards, and still has access to the orchards and vegetable gardens of Versailles to this day to make their teas! I love this story, and obviously it makes the tea taste amazing before I’ve even sipped it.
So how do the French drink their tea today? Black is the answer to that, adding milk to tea is not a tradition the French have acquired, it doesn’t even seem to be something they’re aware of, and will find it quite odd when they hear this is done in the UK. As for drinking utensils, mugs are the way to go, few people get out fancy tea china, and teapots are a rarity (though teapots are making a comeback). Tea pots are very present however at many Parisian ‘tea-time’ services, as the traditional British ‘high tea’ with all of the trimmings has found its place in recent years in five star French hotels. The traditional scone remains relatively unknown in France and is always interestingly received by my French friends, I luckily have access to a Marks & Spencer’s food hall where I live, or clotted cream would not be an option.
Today dinner parties are less filled with questions about tea and more about brexit or Prince Harry having married an American. In light of their newly found love of tea, the French are much more comfortable in their tea consumption, and the offering of a tea beverage to a British person is no longer a stressful hit or miss moment. It’s also lovely, as new tea shops open their doors, to be able to shop for delicious exotic tea, right by my house, without having to hop across the channel to stock up. This thankfully leaves me more time to brush up on facts about the Queen and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, much to the delight of my French guests.
Bye for now,