Childhood family holidays in continental Europe were occasions that prompted — quite unremarkably, no doubt — my first flutters of cultural excitement and embarrassment. Firmly in the latter category was a repeated scenario that went something like this. An older member of the party, tiring of the foreign insistence on serving coffee at all times of the day, would request a cup of tea from a waiter in a café or restaurant. After consulting with a colleague behind the bar, the member of staff would eventually return with a cup of lukewarm water, a bowl of sugar, and an individually wrapped Lipton Yellow Label tea-bag (a brand never knowingly encountered in the UK). To the incredulity of us Brits, milk was nowhere to be seen. Cue further faltering communication. Perhaps eventually there would emerge a small jug of UHT, usually served hotter than the water in which the Lipton was now dully infusing. The next time round, everyone stuck to coffee.
The point of this anecdote, of course, is that tea culture is and remains differentiated, uncertain, and contested. The question of whether to add milk to tea — and how and when to do so — is the subject of energetic (if usually friendly) debate, both in terms of historical and contemporary practices. Milk softens the bitter notes of darker teas, is one deposition; on the contrary (rejoins another), it inhibits their rich complexity. (Serious research has recently tended to come down on the side of abstaining from the lactification of tea, which apparently inhibits the beverage’s capacity to augment arterial function and vascular health.) In the UK, where 98% of tea-drinkers apparently prefer to add milk, the question is rather whether you’re a MIF or a MIL (milk-in-first or milk-in-last). Opinion divides around matters of taste again, for sure, but there’s usually an inflection related to social status too. MIF brings the temperature down more quickly, which in times-gone-by prevented the poorer quality porcelain of the middle classes from shattering; MIL (or rather TIF) is more likely to result in stained drinking vessels that require more vigorous cleaning (best undertaken by the paid domestic staff of the nobility and gentry).
When tea first arrived in Europe almost four-hundred years ago, the vexed issue concerning if and when one should add milk was still to be invented. But it didn’t take long. Historians conventionally cite a letter of 16 February 1680 by the Marquise de Sévigné (an ageing French society beauty and celebrated epistler) as the earliest notice of the phenomenon. Writing to her daughter, the Marquise remarked that fellow-saloniste Marguerite de la Sablière ‘took tea with her milk; she told me so the other day, it was her particular taste’. Nonetheless, de la Sablière was not the first to innovate in this way, even if the habit was sufficiently unusual to be deemed remarkable amongst the French social elites (but note that the context is de Sévigné’s medical recommendation of a milk diet, and not an interest in tea per se). A full decade earlier the English grocer and coffee-house man Thomas Garway published the claim that being ‘prepared and drank with Milk and Water’, tea fortifies the stomach against ‘Consumptions’, ‘pains of the Bowels, or griping of the Guts’, and ‘Looseness’.
If, as Markman Ellis has suggested elsewhere on this blog, experimental recipes were part and parcel of tea’s initial reception by Europeans, it is also true that they were sometimes paralleled by similar preparations observed in China. Reporting on a Dutch embassy to Peking in the 1650s, the ambassador’s steward Johan Nieuhoff noted of the Manchu rulers and their entourage (the Manchu backed Qing dynasty had assumed control of the Chinese Empire from the Han Ming dynasty in 1644):
they infuse half a handful of the Herb The or Cha in fair water, which afterwards they boyl till a third part be consumed, to which they adde warm Milk about a fourth part, with a little Salt, and then drink it hot as they can well endure.
Encoded even in this brief account lurks a sense of social tension predicated upon questions of taste. Elsewhere Nieuhoff makes it clear that the more refined and still powerful Han dignitaries of the south avoided such vulgar practices, at most occasionally sweetening their tea with sugar should it prove too bitter.
In Britain, milk only gradually found itself enlisted as a fundamental ingredient in the cup of tea. Although not unknown, much more common during the eighteenth century was the combination of tea with sugar alone. (Intriguingly, the historian of domestic economy and consumption Carole Shammas has suggested that the rise of a modern tea-trade in the period was at least partly at the expense of traditional and more disorganised dairy businesses and subsistence.) When John Coakley Lettsom worried in 1772 about the growing tea-habit of the labouring classes, milk caused concern in relation to its misdirection for the production of butter (to accompany tea-time bread) rather than as an addition to tea itself. Well into the mid-nineteenth century, surviving household budgets for the urban poor indicate that weekly expenditure often incorporated a relatively extraordinary outlay on tea and sugar, but rarely encompassed milk (this would have to wait for the boom of the milk trade in the second-half of the century, following the advent of the railways, refrigeration, and ultimately pasteurisation).
Nonetheless, change was coming. With understated but unmistakeable snobbery, George Sigmond (writing in 1839) recommended that good Pekoe be infused in water and taken without additives, but lamented that most British consumers are ‘fond of a strong beverage, and of a tea that can be tasted in spite of the sugar and milk’. If part of Sigmond’s intention is to present himself conspicuously as a discerning drinker, capable of judging and savouring the finest grades of leaf-tea, there is also a more benevolent social anxiety at play. What if the fashion for milk and sugar is operating in the interests of unscrupulous dealers, enabling them to sell poorer and poorer quality teas, safe in the knowledge that the vile taste will be masked by the creamy sweetness now in vogue? Could milk in tea turn out to be just another conspiracy of capital against consumers?
Deciding if, how, and when to milk your tea is an enduring cultural negotiation. (You’ll know this, if like me you’ve been mortified – on more than one occasion – to find yourself glugging the white stuff into a cup of Earl Grey or Darjeeling while your fellow-drinker elegantly opts for a slice of lemon). The terms of this negotiation keep shifting – witness recent recommendations of camel’s and even human’s milk in tea as alternatives to the conventional bovine variety. Nonetheless, the instability of such conventions continues to irritate those raw nerves which are at risk every time we perceive that our participation in a widespread, everyday practice might somehow deviate unironically from an agreed communal standard. And in this instance, I’m not even sure that YouTube can show us the way …
 Marquise de Sevigné to Countess de Grignan, 16 February 1680, in Letters from the Marchioness de Sévigné, to her Daughter the Countess de Grignan. Translated from the French of the Last Paris Edition., 10 vols (London: J. Coote, 1763-68), VI (1763), 284-87 (p. 285).
 Thomas Garway, An Exact Description of the Growth, Quality and Vertues of the Leaf Tea ([London: Thomas Garway, c. 1670]).
 Johan Nieuhoff, An Embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperour of China, trans. by John Ogilby (London: John Ogilby, 1669), p. 41.
 George Gabriel Sigmond, Tea; its Effects, Medicinal and Moral. (London: Longman, 1839), p. 62.