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FRANCE

High time for tea in Paris

Teahouses, traditional and contemporary, are newly fashionable for those with discerning palates.

July 22, 2007|Susan Owens | Special to The Times

EVER since Laduree patisserie supplied the cakes for the 2006 period film "Marie Antoinette" -- specifically for the guillotined heroine played by Kirsten Dunst -- tea has become a near-obsession for Parisians. It's a hedonistic, decadent, hourlong indulgence, a world away from the starchy 4 p.m. English ritual.

"Adding sugar, milk, English-style -- this is not tea," says Madame Yu Hui Tseng, whose Paris teahouse is the epicenter for refined palates. Indeed, French taste buds shudder at the idea of milk masking the delicate flavor of exotic, scented teas.

The French had tea first, in 1636, 22 years before it arrived in England. In Marie Antoinette's day, the famous diarist of the time, Madame de Sevigne, wrote that court princesses sipped 12 cups a day, and in 1862 Louis Ernest Laduree introduced the teahouse as an excuse for women to venture out alone.

The Paris tea rush has spawned a rash of sleek teahouses and revived forgotten gems. There are new Japanese, Korean and Russian houses, and classic French addresses such as Hediard, Dalloyau and Mariage Freres are newly fashionable. Even Sorbonne intellectuals sipping Moroccan tea under the sprawling fig trees at the Paris Mosque have had to make way for a chic new crowd.

French women have always preferred a tisane as the last drink of the day. They claim it stimulates the kidneys, dissolves fats and speeds digestion.

The teas seem expensive (sometimes $10 a cup), but these are tea temples where you learn how to steep it properly, sit and sip for at least an hour and unwind in this relaxing, almost therapeutic ritual. But taking tea requires one sacrifice -- lunch or dinner -- because you can't possibly add tea when the cakes are so very Versailles.

MARIAGE FRERES

Mariage Freres' glossy black canisters with tea from 35 countries are exported to connoisseurs all over the world, but it saves the best for this tiny salon in the fashionable Marais. The mood is colonial Indochine: sunny yellow walls, potted palms and tables set with silver and linen.

A waiter offers a choice of 500 teas (black, green, red, blue and white). In summer it serves enormous, stemmed bowls of frigidly cold tea like Tea sur le Nil ($9.62), a green tea flavored with citrus. It's delicious with Full Moon ginger cake or Tibet tea panacotta ($13.75 each).

There are pretty gifts to buy, such as lacquered wood tea canisters in cyclamen pink, orange and teal blue. Before you leave, take five minutes to go upstairs to the tiny museum of 19th century weighing scales, tea chests and caddies.

10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily. 30 Rue du Bourg-Tibourg, 011-33-1-42-72-28-11, www.mariagefreres.com.

LADUREE

Laduree's emblematic creation is the sugary, round macaron -- in 20 flavors. The old-is-new-again teahouse is a temple to Marie Antoinette. Do as Parisians do and go upstairs to the cushiony banquettes set against wood-paneled walls, mirrors and painted murals.

How can you possibly have anything but the Marie Antoinette tea, which is Chinese tea infused with extracts of rose, jasmine, dried fruit and honey? And what would the queen have selected to eat? "St. Honore a la Russe," says a waitress in a floor-length apron. It's a confection of filo pastry, rose petal custard, Chantilly cream, miniature eclairs, raspberries and rose petals.

If you choose macarons with your tea (a selection of four is $8.40) the favorites are violet, raspberry, rose petal and orange blossom.

8.30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays. 16 Rue Royal, 011-33-1-42-60-21-79, www.laduree.fr.

DALLOYAU

Dalloyau, in the heart of chic shopping, has been around since 1802. The fashion crowd loves it because teas are carefully matched to each season, and the cakes are iconic.

Dalloyau was the first patisserie to put gold leaf onto chocolate-topped cakes and the chocolate pyramid, Le Louvre ($6.25), is named for the entrance to the museum. The first-floor tearoom shimmers with turquoise silk cushions against chocolate brown, and on a midsummer's day the aromatic Fruit Tea is delicious: flavored with grapefruit, orange and rose oils ($9.62). Choose a St. Honore pastry with it.

If you don't like fragrant tea, servers will suggest Darjeeling, the rich "Champagne of teas." This may be the freshest tea in Paris; a tiny sachet is filled with leaves to your order, then knotted at your table.

8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. 101 Faubourg Saint-Honore, 011-33-1-42-99-90-00, dalloyau.splio.fr.

HEDIARD

Hediard is the unashamedly elitist Paris grocer where tea is taken on the first floor -- as tradition demands. The atmosphere is reminiscent of '40s shipboard life with zebra print upholstery, oodles of bamboo and towering vases of orchids. Hediard overlooks the Madeleine and is good for a business conversation.

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