What is it? France's oldest teahouse, founded in the nation's capital more than 150 years ago. The tea emporium/restaurant/museum sits behind a typically Parisian facade on rue du Bourg Tibourg, in Le Marais, a très chic neighbourhood known for its designer stores, perfumeries, boutiques, bars and bistros.
What's so special about the place? It is truly a living museum. Behind an oversized wooden comptoir, more than 600 varieties of tea are laid out, apothecary style, in antique black canisters on floor-to-ceiling shelving. Immaculately dressed staff measure the tea in old-fashioned scoops, weigh it on vintage scales and pour it into little bags for patrons to take home.
Exactly how much tea are we talking about? With leaves from 36 countries, Mariage Frères may well have the world's longest list of teas. White teas, yellow teas, green teas, blue teas, black teas, matured teas, compressed teas, crafted teas and red teas; you name it, the chances are they'll have it. Browse further and you'll find vintage varieties and unique harvests.
No teahouse would be complete, of course, without Chinese tea, and in the shop's compendium, the Middle Kingdom has the most entries, from a total of 18 growing areas. The nation's contribution to the "art" of tea is described as "one of the most precious gifts China has ever offered to the world". The teahouse is also famous for its blends - "composed like secret, complex perfumes".
What about the food? The salon de thé (below), in a skylit rear courtyard with palms and high-backed cane chairs, is a somewhat imperial setting for afternoon tea or lunch. The menu, meanwhile, dispels any idea that tea is only found in teapots; here it is also creatively deployed as an ingredient, spice or flavouring in dishes such as Earl Grey madeleines and Darjeeling pie. Suggestions are also offered for pairings: French pastries marry well with green Japanese tea, for example. For sweet palates, there are tea-flavoured chocolates and jellies. And to complete the picture, customers are served by tea sommeliers in white linen suits.
Are there any other teasers for tea devotees? Mariage Frères was the first retailer to package its products in elegant containers and boxes, or so it is claimed. The shop sells assorted tea-flavoured and scented products that are coveted as much for their aesthetic appeal as for their practical use. The maison's cookbooks, exotic pots, bone china cups, teaspoons and strainers are all recommended for the tea obsessed.
Can you suggest a souvenir for a Hongkonger? How about the bright pink Mariage Frères-brand vintage tin of Happy Queen, a wonderfully aromatic green tea with rose petals?
Mariage Frères is at 30 rue du Bourg Tibourg, Le Marais, Paris, France; www.mariagefreres.com