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Mariage Freres: A Ginza tea party

by David Chester

They haven’t had to advertise in over 140 years. Of course, when your product is of the highest quality, word travels — even to distant shores.

Such is the reputation of France’s oldest importer of fine teas, Mariage Freres (the Mariage brothers). Beginning in 1660 with voyages to Persia on behalf of the French East India Company by brothers Nicolas and Pierre, followed by the establishment in 1854 of their own business in Paris by descendents Henri and Edouard, Mariage Freres is recognized by tea connoisseurs for its dedication to selecting only the world’s “finest harvests” to ensure a perfect cup of tea.

Drawing on decades of tradition, the light but elegant French touch is everywhere in Mariage Freres salon de the in Ginza.

Introducing its grand tradition to Japan 10 years ago, Mariage Freres first featured its products at fine department stores. Its success in this green tea-loving country encouraged it to grace Ginza with its flagship shop in 1997. Located on high profile Suzuran-Dori, this cleverly designed four-story salon de the proves not only that old world elegance is alive and well, but that people are still willing to pay for it.

To help the unitiated wade through the over 450 varieties of sublime teas with “that delicate bouquet which epitomizes French taste,” Mariage Freres has published “The French Art of Tea,” an extremely entertaining tome. With selections from 32 countries, this illustrated text would repay several afternoons spent poring over it. In addition to colorfully describing the available choices (i.e., the Chinese Grand Pai Mu Tan, or Honorable White Peony, is said to have a “subtle, flowery taste,” which “yields a mandarin-colored liquor”), it also covers the history of Mariages Freres, the “civilization of tea” and the “five golden rules for making tea successfully” (complete with a tea-steeping chart which covers black as well as green teas).

Perhaps realizing the challenge customers face when determining which tea best matches their mood, Mariage Freres offers three floors of picture-perfect salons. Here, amongst the pale lemon walls, subdued lighting and classical music, you can leisurely contemplate all the world’s “classic blends” and “fancy flavors.”

You can also enjoy the vicarious thrill of imagining yourself in the original Mariage Freres on the Rive Gauche in Paris, as every piece of furniture, as well as the frosted glass windows, has been imported from France. Add to that waiters in cream-colored linen suits and bow ties and the idea of ever going back to the days of “Will that be lemon tea or milk tea?” will vanish.

“We are not interested in having a chain,” says Director General Bruno Combes, who has been with Mariage Freres in Japan since its inception. “Tea is a way of life here; it’s like a religion.”

Although there are no altars (yet), there is a sense of higher order at Mariage Freres, where each waiter becomes a “tea taster” to ensure each brew has been steeped to perfection. Combes also likens tea to wine, saying, “You can’t say which is best, Bordeaux or Bourgogne. You must choose the one that is best for this day, this moment. Perhaps it is smoky, green, black or fruity. The most important thing is for the tea to taste wonderful. You can’t achieve that in just two to three years of business.”

Neither can you acquire rare objects that represent this most honored beverage’s “poetic, fragrant past.” From secret herbal boxes to lacquered tea caddies with mother-of-pearl inlay, Ginza’s Mariage Freres has its own museum which boasts a representative selection from its formal collection in Paris.

Looking over these historic items, Combes points out that “Tea was once considered as valuable as fine jewels.” Apparently Mariage Freres still believes that to be true. The first floor boutique offers precious gems of its own, including Art Deco tea pots, tea-scented incense and tea leaf-topped chocolates which put Godiva’s to shame.

Whether they are enjoying a salade foie gras, a tarte tatin or a cup of souveraine (“a velvety wedding of China and Ceylon teas”), the customers (and the house is full) seem to be having a grande time. When you only serve qualite superieure, word travels. Or didn’t you know?