Joséphine B. has a very dreamy setup.
“I had to give a name to my art, and I think tea designer was the perfect word,” she told Food & Wine. “For me it’s not just tea. You’re creating something, like a perfume. I create something for your personality; it’s very special.”
Joséphine has been a professional tea designer for three years, but her relationship with tea goes back much further. Half of her family is Sri Lankan, and she says that tea is in her blood; she’s enjoyed it ever since she was a child. For the last ten years, she’s traveled the world tasting different teas and meeting producers so she could create blends of her own. Now, she's settled in Pont-Sainte-Maxence, an hour's drive from the city, where she lives in a castle and dedicates her days to the art of tea.
She says she can be inspired by anything, from a color to a detail, or even a feeling. The latter helped inform one of her latest projects at the Mandarin Oriental in Paris—a tea inspired by the hotel’s new Parisian Apartment, which launched in June.
“Apartment” is an appropriate word for the 430-square-meter hotel suite that encompasses an entire floor of the building. It’s outfitted with four bedrooms and bathrooms, a reception area, dining room, two living rooms, and fully equipped kitchen—not to mention, a massive outdoor terrace. Each guest who books the apartment is greeted with a cup of Joséphine’s tea, called “Coeur de Paris” (heart of Paris), as well as a box to bring home. The tea isn’t available anywhere else in the world, so it’s a special, highly specific souvenir.
When guests pour a cup of “Coeur de Paris,” they may notice that its pale, delicate gold tone is echoed in details throughout the apartment, from paneling in one of the bedrooms to velvet on the sofa. The homey feeling of the apartment factored into the tea’s design, too—Joséphine opted for an Oolong with notes of chestnuts and chocolate for a warm, comforting taste. The finishing touch was an extract of rose petals. Roses are grown in the region surrounding Paris, and since the Mandarin Oriental is located in the heart of Paris itself (hence the Coeur de Paris name), she added the floral essence as an homage to the city.
“I think it’s a passion, roses in tea,” she said.
The tea is very delicate—I noticed the warmer notes first, followed by an almost perfume-y aftertaste. Indeed, Joséphine compares designing tea to designing a perfume, perfecting the balance of different flavors and scents. She says you can drink Coeur de Paris as you wish, either plain or with your preferred combination of cream and sugar. That's the beauty of tea—it's personal, which is why she loves creating custom blends for others.
Now that “Coeur de Paris,” is available at The Parisian Apartment, Joséphine already has a few other projects on the horizon. She’s working on a tea inspired by the paintings of Séraphine de Senlis (aka Séraphine Louis), a French naïve painter known for her vivid paintings of flowers—accordingly, the tea will feature flowery, fruity notes. Roland Bonaparte, Joséphine Bonaparte, and Joséphine Baker have served as inspiration for her work too, and Joséphine also plans on developing a tea and meat pairing with Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec, the legendary French butcher that Angie Mar apprenticed with.
Her main goal, however, is to create the first artisan French tea—she feels that tea isn't as popular in France as it should be, and she’s determined to change that. This year marks the first that she’s planting and growing tea in France, near the castle. As such, she also hopes to put her town, Pont-Sainte-Maxence, in the spotlight.
“I would like everybody to know that in this place, some years ago, the daughter of a famous poet, Voltaire, did exactly the same as me—she simply gave her heart,” she said. “And giving my heart, for me, means creating tea.”