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Home and health: the enduring passion for herbal drinks in France.

Herbal Beverages: 'Tea' they most certainly are not and, truthfully, should not be labeled as such, but healthful, homey, and fun they most certainly can be. They are also profitable.

The French of all people know this quite well. Herbal infusions are an old and very popular part of everyday culture in France. For generations, the French have commonly been raised to think of hot herbal drinks as an indispensable nightcap, particularly in the family circle. This is so important that the drinks for many are inseparable from nostalgic feelings for the home and hearth. The beverages, known as 'tisane' (pronounced 'tea-san' in English), are also so much a part of traditional medicine that every French hospital had (still has!) a 'tisanerie' or a room especially devoted to preparing hot herbal drinks for all the patients.

Hundreds of herbal drinks are known, some more precious than others. To the French, the most common tisanes, and those they often process and prepare themselves from what comes readily to hand in their own gardens and lawns, are linden, verbena and mint. The linden drink, for example, is made from linden tree flowers.

When the trees are in full bloom, and the air around is wrapped with bees and the tantalizing subtleties of linden flower scent, the blossoms are plucked and set aside in the shade to dry. Drying time depends on local humidity and temperature readings in late spring and early summer, but in southern France, about a month elapses before the blossoms are at the right crackling-brittle point and can be carefully packed into paper bags and sealed away for the winter. Linden, like other tisanes, is mainly consumed in the October through March period.

To prepare a cup of linden, the French housewife will boil water, warm the pot, then steep a few handfuls (note, handfuls as linden is a shy taste), or, better yet, simmer the blossoms in boiling water for about five minutes to get fuller flavor. Be forewarned, however, even then, most drinkers dive for the sugar. Linden is 'tilleul' in French; the other dearly beloved favorite is verbena or 'verveine.'

Tisanes are not so often such a humble matter, however. There exists a whole body of sophisticated recipes for combining herbals, fruits, and spices into fabulous blends. Herbal drinks have also been incorporated in haute cuisine. Renowned chefs, such as Michel Guerard, to name but one, have appointed herb rooms in their establishments - spaces reserved for a stylish serving and savoring of their own carefully hand-selected and processed herbal infusions. These understandably are the gourmand's tisanes.

The homemade side of herbals aside, one must try to conceive of all the differing herbs and possible combinations of herbs, all the reputed benefits from the various drinks, all the flavorings; it amounts to a universe of possibilities. Hence, herbal infusions have long been a serious study in France, so rich and involved a science that chemists have made fortunes in them, or gone mad trying, and an entire profession evolved devoted to them. The 'herboriste' was once found in every French town, having been accredited by specific study and apprenticeship to claim an expertise in herbs and their beneficial properties. Only an herboriste could sell plants out of the local 'herboristerie.' This did not change until the 1960s, and in fact there are still a few (a very few) true herboristes operating in France.

What happened was that the actual function of the herboriste was incorporated into that of the pharmacist. With this change, pharmacy degrees automatically included the study of plants, and full-fledged pharmacists could pursue the subject further and acquire a specialized degree in medicinal plants. Naturally enough, the pharmacy itself came to completely dominate sales of herbal infusion products, and, needless to add, the health aspect of the market was foremost.

This retail pattern in turn changed rapidly in the mid-1980s when the herbals moved out onto the shelves of grocery stores and hypermarkets. With the boom in big stores throughout France - leading to their pervasive control of food retailing today - the market for herbal infusions is now increasingly similar to that for teas, being denoted by sophisticated packaging and brand imagery concepts.

Although exact current figures are not available, the French herbal, or tisane, beverage market can be justly characterized as follows: some 2,500 metric tons are sold annually, of which more than 60% is in sachet format (paper or linen bags); some 36% is in instant products; no more than 2% is in bulk. Hypermarkets and large grocery stores handle well over 70% of herbal sales, with about 20% through small grocery stores and the remainder via other types of establishments.

Although the tastes of the traditional tisane consumer hold steady, for long popular, mild, and even bland concoctions - and these consumers are generally in the older population group - the French herbals market has suffered a sea change, as the expression goes. A real interest in the general population has developed for the drinks, drawn perhaps most by the imagery of naturalness, well-being, and health/diet correctness, and this is tending strongly toward flavored tisane. Taste, that is pleasure, has become a factor of the market. One segment of this that seems to have particular appeal at the moment is in the natural fruit-flavored herbals.

The tisane market leader in France in sachets is the Lipton-owned Elephant brand family, with more than 46% of sector sales. Another leading trademark is Lipton's own line of Saveurs du Soir herbals; combining these sales and Elephant brand sales, Lipton overwhelmingly dominates the French herbal drink sachet market, both in traditional herbals and in the new fruit and herbal segment. Twinings' La Tisanerie rules the bulk herbal field. The Ricola family of instant herbal infusions, from Solinest, controls almost 90% of its product area. Store brands represent almost 10% of the total retail market for tisanes in France.

Given the global status of the leaders in each area, one can see that herbals are indeed a big and serious business in France. Nevertheless, although the national market is characterized as being quite stable, it is also flat. The market has been growing by no more than 2% annually. The only products clearly showing more potential now are those positioned for the newly developing dietary and organic herbal drink niches.

In sum, there are half a dozen sizable enterprises in France packing herbal beverage products - either for infusion or as instant drinks. On another level, there are several more smaller packers operating regionally. Among the ranks of the first tier of companies - although it is a relatively small, family owned operation - one finds Establissements Fouche. Fouche is representative of both the French tradition in medicinal herbals and of the newer trend to fun drinks, hot and cold, and to organic and dietary tisanes. Its production is in sachets and as instants. Although Fouche has its own trademarks - Le Jardin des Saveurs, Saveurs d'Enfance, Bouquet de France - it specializes also in private label services, from product workup to package design.

Carol Fouche is the company's president, and the eighth generation of his family to be directly involved in the business. He has the crisp, clean mannerism of the pharmacist, appropriately so as he is a doctor of pharmacy. The company has been involved with processing plants for one market or another since 1820. Currently, it operates two factories - one at headquarters in Houdan, principally for extraction - and a new site for herbal beverage products located in Marne La Vallee, just outside Paris. The new facility gives Fouche potential for doubling capacity in herbals, a necessity if current goals in private label and branded product exports are realized.

"We are too small to compete well on the French national retail market," explains Carol. "The market is flat here; the leader overwhelms it. Instead, we focus on marketing specific upscale niche products where growth seems assured - for example, in all-natural herbal and fruit tisanes, and in the markets for dietary and organic herbals. We have steady sales in France but for growth are looking at exports, mainly to other European nations and to the U.S. We are also increasingly active in private label production and that is a good business for us."

Ets. Fouche is self sufficient in milling and blending the herbal and fruit ingredients, as well as in packaging. In fact, the company is unique in France in combining a complete herbal beverage processing and packaging line in one facility, including high speed Constanta teabag machinery for forming the herbal sachets.

"We have to be a little different, a little more flexible, to survive," says Carol. "One example, our in-house printing department, is set up to do just about any job - boxes, labels, and bag wrappers. It's the same throughout all our operations; in herbals, you have to control all the quality inputs, from start to finish."

The company's main brand family, Le Jardin des Saveurs, includes the unadorned classics - verbena, linden, and peppermint - plus a roster of tantalizing combinations, living up to its name as a Garden of Tastes: rosemary-sage-coriander, lavender-citronella, licorice-mint, apple-cinnamon, cherry-hibiscus, apple-black currant, and linden-lemon. A line for children, Saveurs d'Enfance, includes three products, each based on linden and flavored respectively with caramel, banana, and vanilla.

For export markets, Fouche created the Bouquet de France line. This features hibiscus-cherry, apple-cinnamon, lavender-citronella (a blend with fennel, licorice, chestnut leaves and a touch of apple), peppermint, and chamomile.
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Author:Bell, Jonathan
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Aug 1, 1997
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