Milk in tea
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A spot or more…milk in your tea

Classic burning issues of deep trivia about tea have long been whether to add milk and, if so, which to put into the cup first. A corresponding historical question is who initially made this radical culture move, when and why.

The routine answers are that it’s another English Aristocracy tradition, that it served mainly to soften black teas, and was poured in first to avoid the boiling water cracking the fine bone porcelain developed in the 1760s. The first reported instance of milk added to tea was by a Dutchman in 1655 about a feast in China held in the palace of the Manchu Emperor. That provides the standard ancient historical seriousness.

The earliest European reference to the custom of adding milk is a single sentence in the published letter of a French noblewoman, Madame de Sevigné, about an even nobler noblewoman, Madame de Sablière, who thus gets the historical credit and sets up the aristocracy association.

As for milk in first (MIF as it is referred to in the 2,142,675 or so discussion pieces, blogs and press articles), it’s all supposedly about social class. Explanations range from English traders in the Qing dynasty bringing back the news from China that this was the refined way to take tea to accusations that as tea breaks were established in factories, unscrupulous supervisors encouraged adding plenty of milk to cool the tea quickly and get the workers back to the job.

All this is most politely summarized as conjecture and more accurately as a load of old tosh, twaddle and even tarradiddle. The Manchu claim defies biology. The don’t- crack-the-porcelain hypothesis contradicts material sciences. And the nobility theme distorts economics. As for MIF and MIL, that this is still a topic for debate means that there is no discernable pattern, social or otherwise.

The weight of historical and scientific evidence points to four factors that explain the with milk/plain distinctions in tea cultures: genetics, nutrition, distribution and trade. As so often with tea, the simple leaf in a cup connects back to many wider worlds.

Lactose Intolerance or You won’t add milk if you can’t digest it

Milk in general relates to one of the fastest and most extensive aspects of human evolution. It all seems to have started in Central Europe where we have the fossilized cow bones to prove it. In a mere 10,000 years, an eyeblink in evolutionary timetables, part of the world’s population created a biological tweak that accounts for who drinks tea with milk.

This genetic component is simple and obvious but rarely even hinted at in the blather school of tea storytelling. Two-thirds of the world’s population is lactose-intolerant. China has never been a dairy culture; it couldn’t be. Even today, the average consumption of milk there is 6 kilos where the global average is 100 kg.

Earlier societies such as ancient Egypt had made cheese but couldn’t digest raw milk. The steppe tribes of Tibet and Mongolia began buying their milk-free tea from China at least 2,000 years ago. Right from then, and even today, they added dairy milk and yak butter to tea to make a nutritious fuel.

The explanation for the differences is lactase, an enzyme generated by the body that allows it to digest lactose, the main sugar in milk, without its too often fatal stomach upsets and diarrhea. That enzyme got switched off by early adulthood, allowing babies to benefit from the many nutritious benefits of their mother’s milk. Only in a very few societies did it stay active.

The accepted explanations center on the cow, sheep and goat in Europe and yak and buffalo in Asia, and on cold climates. Farmers in Poland, the Balkans and parts of Scandinavia began to use domesticated animals for milk rather than meat, around 7,500 years ago. This gave their populations a massive evolutionary advantage. Milk was a superfood for Neolithic societies: packed with protein, calcium, carbohydrates and micronutrients.

In cold climates, milk provided a dietary source of the vitamin D that skin makes when exposed to sunshine. The climate of Northern Europe and mountainous areas such as Tibet and Mongolia are a natural refrigerant. In, say, Southern Spain, if a farmer milks a cow in the morning, it’s turned into yoghurt by the afternoon. Milk couldn’t be stored in warm environments.

Over time, the differences among ethnic groups and individual regions in lactose tolerance became more and more marked and were a factor in migration. Here are just a scattering of figures of the percentage of groups that are lactose intolerant today:

Denmark 2%,  Zambia 100%, US Afro-Americans and native Indians 75%, Asian Americans 90%, US Caucasians 15%, Northern France 15%, Southern France 65%, Britain 10%.

China, India, Kenya, Japan, Taiwan and Africa are all 70-95% lactose intolerant. There are variations, of course: Northern India is 30% but for the overall population the intolerance rate is 70%.

Note that these are the nations that grow most of the world’s teas. All are at the very high end of the intolerance scale. So, the reason their cultures historically didn’t add milk to tea is that they couldn’t. That didn’t prevent them breeding milk animals – China is the third largest producer of milk – or consuming cheeses and foods where the lactose has been removed.

By contrast, the nations that historically were the main consumers of tea are all low on lactose intolerance: Britain, Ireland, Holland, France, North America and Russia. Their tea drinkers could drink as much raw milk as they wished. And they did wish to. There were two main reasons for this: nutrition and trade.

Tea plus milk plus sugar  

The nutritional element mainly affected the poor. Tea plus milk plus sugar constituted a comforting, warm and stimulating addition to a diet that otherwise consisted mostly of bread. It was also the safest protection against the biggest single killer in urban life across the globe: water. Deaths from dysentery, typhoid and cholera were a constant threat. Boiling water to make tea, starting in early China, was arguably its single most far-reaching contribution to health.

Once the historically high taxes on tea were reduced, tea moved from upper class luxury to middle class commodity to working class necessity.  It became an add-on allowance to the wages of housemaids and factory workers.

And it was a survival food for the urban poor of England and destitute rural population of Ireland. The term “a cup and two slices” crops up across the 19th and early 20th centuries, most notably in George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris. It was the daily allowance given to the indigent poor confined to workhouses that were in effect prisons.

Britain has long been skilled in its romanticizing its past, but the conditions of the poor in the discontinuities created by the Industrial Revolution shouldn’t be prettied up. Economic growth created a society of massive inequality.

Social statistics are just about identical to those of many modernizing Asian and African nations in this regard. Britain was a land of children working eighty hours a week, including as little mules pulling the trolleys of coal underground in the Welsh mines, a life expectancy of fifteen for boys in the big cities, fewer than ten percent of homes having any heating or cooking facilities, and child prostitution fully legal and widespread.

Malnutrition resulted in British soldiers being five inches shorter than their officers and well below the average heights of their German, Dutch and French equivalents. (Height is by far the single most reliable indicator of social and economic development, especially among new generations of immigrants moving from poor to rich countries.)

Tea became central to British life at all levels of society in this period and much of the stratification, etiquette, snobbery and issues about milk and sugar, afternoon/ high/low/meat tea, and traditions come down to upper class preferences, middle class options and working class necessity.

The upper class treated tea for its taste, not its nutrition. They wanted only light additional refreshments. Afternoon tea and high tea and all the associated sweets and nibbles of cakes and sandwiches are really French in basics. The salon culture of Paris preceded the English Royal palace and Earl and Duchess tradition by a century. More consequentially, it was as intellectual and political as the English was its opposite. The leading Grandes Dames hostesses of the Parisian invitation only events commanded high prestige.

The limited evidence suggests that the preferred choice of the French salons was light pastries and biscuits for what the Brits would call “nibbles”, and lemon, not milk, as addition. There are references to cream, which reinforces the selectivity. Milk was mainly a lower class drink, largely because it was locally produced and distributed and impossible to keep fresh. The cream was from the fat globules that floated to the top of fresh milk.

The French Connection

It is in this background of French tea that Madame de Sablière becomes of historical interest. She is celebrated as the first person reported to add milk to tea. That attribution rests on a single sentence in the letters of Madame de Sevigné, a noted Parisian socialite who hosted salons that attracted leading intellectuals, artists and politicians and wrote voluminous epistles. Mme de Sablière gains a presence in most books on the social history of tea through the other Mme’s by-the-way comment in her correspondence with her daughter.

What isn’t mentioned is that Marguerite de Sablière was a very substantive figure in French moral philosophy, regularly described as a “polymath”, one of the first woman astronomers, with a strong body of original research, and a leading writer on religious knowledge, moral agency and  “apothatic” virtue.

Her own literary salon was recognized as one of Paris’s leading cultural centers. Regular attendees included the Queen of Sweden plus every major French writer, most notably her protégé la Fontaine, and France’s two most renowned dramatists, Molière for comedy and Racine for tragedy.

She was highly regarded for her knowledge of Latin and Greek. In later life, she dedicated her time and money as a full-time volunteer at La Hospice Des Incurables, a very dangerous commitment that involved mostly nursing patients with highly contagious diseases.

This heavyweight lives on only as a stereotype. You, the reader, are most likely to assume that de Sablière’s name with the evocative “Madame” and “de” plus the painting shown below, are an identikit image of the idle aristocrat noted for elegance and delicacy but not brains and achievement.

Milk in tea

The most intriguing aspects of Madame de Sevigné’s statement are that she thought it worth commenting on and de Sablière’s explanation of the reason for her innovation: “because it was to her taste.”

From milkmaid to milkman

Milk in tea became very much to the taste of the middle class in Britain, but much later than is generally assumed. It is only in the 1860s that it started its growth which peaked in the 1920s, by which time roughly two-thirds of tea drinkers were estimated to add milk; today, its fifty-fifty.

In 1862 Louis Pasteur patented the process that bears his name and made milk safe, the railway expansion added large markets for meat, fish, produce – and dairy. Automation rapidly increased efficiency and yield. In the years that Indian and Ceylon black teas displaced China’s previous monopoly, Britain was becoming a nation of dairy farming rather than grains. Milk became cheap and easy to obtain in large cities.

In the 17th and 18th century, milk was a local and small scale product and its sale very much done by street vendors. The milkmaid was both the milker and carrier. 

Pasteurization and bottling transformed distribution, quality and freshness. Until the 1970s, milk was delivered daily to almost all British households. Supply enabled demand.

Trade: six months on a slow boat from China

Demand was very much influenced by the nature of tea trading. The basic problem was in importing tea from China, the only source until the 1830s, was that it got very stale in the fourteen thousand mile sea voyage. Green tea was most vulnerable to degradation and over time lost out to black teas, whose processing left them drier and preserving of flavor.

The success, after many decades of efforts, in growing tea in India and then Ceylon transformed the entire global market. Britain, Russia, Turkey, Iran and India are dominated by black tea. This tends to be bitter. The mass market was flooded with full and bold teas from Assam and Ceylon. Milk softened them.

The entire discussion of milk and tea ignores the fact that no one adds milk to green tea. Try it and you won’t want it again.

There’s a tendency in tea history to ascribe substantive shifts to individuals. So, Earl Grey invented his stuff, the Duchess of Bedford created afternoon tea and Catherine of Braganza introduced tea to England. Apart from being largely myths, this overlooks the everyday nature of tea and how permeated it has been in Asian and Western societies for so long. The shifts sketched in this post are very ordinary, often unrecorded and very much driven by historical drifts, not single events. Milk and tea came together via genetics and climate, wealth and poverty, economics and science. Fernand Braudel, the great – well, maybe greatest, — modern historian – stated that progress occurs over “la longue durée” and is concerned with “changes in the limits of the possible in the structures of everyday life.” Such change is uneventful but consequential.

That’s very much the general story of tea and emphatically the real narrative of milk. 

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  • Peter GW Keen
    Peter Keen has been a professor at leading universities across the world, including Harvard, MIT and Stanford in the US and in Singapore, The
    Netherlands, Mexico and UK. He is the author of over thirty books on the links between business innovation and technology.
    Peter was born in Singapore, brought up in England and now lives in Virginia in the US.

    Peter loves tea and loves writing. His latest book, Tea Tips: A Guide to Finding and Enjoying Tea was published in February 2017.
  • All Posts from Peter GW Keen

1 Comment

  1. Pamela says

    What an interesting article. Just as they say beer saved Europeans of the day from dysentery perhaps tea fed the masses and saved them as well. We owe so much to China and India but we just don’t know it.

    I drink Japanese green tea all the time, of course, without milk or sugar. And love it that way. I brew is at between 70°C to 88°C depending on the green tea type. The better it is, the lower the temperature. But black tea is a different matter for me. I have to brew it strong and have it with milk and sugar. I don’t know why, but I just have to have milk and sugar!!

    By the way, I’m American but of Scandinavian background on both sides of my family. And I have never had any problems with milk digestion.

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