Neo.T, with a unique selection of Chinese teas, recently celebrated its two-year anniversary in the popular and crowded quarter of Montmartre.
Walk five minutes down the hill from the famous Sacré-Coeur (“sacred heart”) Basilica that reigns over northeast Paris and dominates the skyline upon arrival from the airport before the Eiffel Tower comes into sight. On a steep road called rue des Martyrs, you’ll find a friendly and colorful store that belongs to Valerie Stalport, a former journalist and copywriter who had to find a new path when her Art Magazine changed hands three years ago.
Asked to comment on the transition, Stalport said her more than 15 years of journalism had been a fascinating and happy time, but she needed a change.
“Thinking back on my lifelong fascination with China and its millenary culture,” Stalport said, “I knew the time had come to investigate possible new options that could lead me to a Far East-oriented career.”
Browsing her Chinese language and calligraphy books, she formulated an idea: She would open a tea store with a strong focus on teas from China.
Now that Stalport’s project was born, she needed to take action. First on the list would be finding the best place to open her store and convincing a bank to give her a loan. As part of her feasibility study, Valerie talked to most of the tea professionals in Paris, analyzing which quarters of the big city had good potential for substantial demand for good quality tea.
After several months, she made her decision; as luck would have it, a reasonably sized shop was for sale just where she wanted to locate her tea room. Near the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, on a busy little street densely populated with locals and several small hotels, the location ensured a constant flow of both French and foreign customers. Even better, no other tea store can be found in the area.
After redecorating and squeezing in a narrow little staircase to access a small second-floor space for three tables, Stalport was satisfied. The lilac colored doors of neo.T opened at 89 rue des Martyrs in the 18th borough of Paris.
Neo.T’s lilac and pale green tea caddies were supplied by a traditional, old family company in the north of France, la Maison Lagache, which is well known for its variety of metal packaging.
But what to put in them? While buying from several specialty tea suppliers in the French market, Valerie came across a totally unconventional importer: a young, French self-described “tea hunter.”
Named Pascal Delot, this tea hunter has been living in China for several years, based in Hangzhou, a city of significant reputation in the tea world because it is home to the famous Xi Hu Long Jing, aka Westlake Dragonwell.
At a neo.T tea tasting in september, I asked Delot about his life-changing decision, made three years ago, to go live in China. “It is the people in Lyon that trained me in tea knowledge who passed on their fascination to me,” he said. “The company owner himself spent two years at the Hangzhou Tea Academy, and after a few return trips, I just wanted to settle down for good, then go off the beaten path in search of special, unusual teas from villages and small farms.”
After three years of this, Delot has established fruitful relationships with several tea growing villages, mainly in Zhejiang and Fujian provinces. He also works with minority tea growing tribes in Guizhou and Sichuan provinces, where he finds small crops that he delivers when travelling home to France once or twice a year, or simply sends by parcel post, which can accommodate up to 10 kilograms and takes around four weeks to arrive.
This allows Stalport’s tea store to boast several premium teas that can only be found there – a bonus addition to her 130 varieties of loose leaf tea. Although she carries tea from all origins, her focus is on green teas from China.
For tea lovers and insiders, Delot organizes yearly tea trips, taking small groups to his own special haunts, which means long walks, lodging with villagers and insight into traditional tea habits that are not normally shared with outsiders.
In addition to its wide selection of teas, neo.T also displays many small tea gadgets and gifts, most of them from China, Taiwan and Japan. If you climb the narrow staircase to sip your cup at one of the three small tables upstairs, you will find delicacies such as matcha cake or matcha chocolate to go with your tea.
Stalport said the dramatic shift from interviewing and working behind a computer to standing in a store and chatting with customers was rough at first but has since become a happy routine, particularly when it allows her to share some of tea knowledge.
“My greatest joy comes from my growing involvement with Chinese teas and tea culture,” Stalport said. She is already looking forward to her second trip to China next spring.