“Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea.” Henry Fielding
Tea traditions run deep in the veins of my family. We keep our tea in a tin. We drink our tea in the morning, midday, afternoon and evening. Perhaps our levels of caffeine change, and we are open to new things. Be clear, though, a “real cuppa” around our house is black tea, served with milk and sugar – with a nod to the validity of honey or whisky as an option. Herbal tea? It’s lovely, but it isn’t real tea. Iced tea? A different species altogether.
Some of my most cherished possessions are my teacups and pots. They tell the story of my progression from childhood into adulthood. I earned those stains in my china. They symbolize years of ritual, contemplation, desperation, soothing and tradition. It’s tradition that also becomes the source of story. Ask my friend Minerva, and she will tell you that she is unable to remember my grandmother without thinking of tea – and the process by which that tea was made, every….darn….day.
Why, though, did we have the rituals that we had? There were rules. Yep. TEA RULES. I thought it might be fun to explore some of these hard and fast rules of my childhood. Here’s what I found out!
It is bad luck to trade off making a cup of tea. The same person should put the tea and hot water into the teapot from the kettle, then pour from teapot to cup.
As much research as I have done, I cannot find any folklore or superstition about this, and have grown quite convinced that this was entirely fabricated as a rule of tea making. I suspect it was a lesson in taking initiative, doing something nice for someone else and taking pride in finishing what one started. For me, that tea ritual was a rite of passage. So clearly, I remember the first time I was entrusted to boil that kettle, fill the pot, and to prepare the cups with the prescribed ratio of sugar and milk. I still feel the floorboards under my feet as I carefully inched my way into the bedroom, carefully placing the elixir filled porcelain teacup on the nightstand. More than anything, I remember the smile as she took that first sip, starting her day with a perfect cuppa made all by my own hand.
Sugar first, then milk. Then add the tea.
The importance of tea in a British household is indisputable. How that tea is made is often up for debate, even among those tea aficionados. How long do you brew the tea, loose leaf or bag, when do you put in sugar, what type of tea at what time of day are all hotly debated. What was not up for discussion in Doris’ kitchen was the order in which the process occurred. It turns out that scientists studied the question, and after an 11 year study by the Royal Society of Chemistry, found that Doris was right – the milk goes in first! I’ve always thought it more sensible to warm the milk with the hot water, rather than cool the hot water by adding the milk. However, the folk at the RSC found actual chemical proof that pouring cold milk into hot tea will denature the milk proteins and can radically change the way your ‘cuppa tastes. They recommend loose leaf Assam tea, soft water, chilled milk and white sugar. Oh, and a ceramic teapot and mug- not fine china. They also recommend waiting to drink tea until it reaches 60-65C to “avoid vulgar slurping which results from trying to drink tea at too high a temperature.” A look at boxes of both Yorkshire Tea and Twinning, instructions clearly state that the first step of making tea is pouring milk in a cup, and topping, without stirring, with the black tea. So, science and tea makers agree.
There may be another prism to look at the whole “milk first” philosophy though. The generation of Brits who lived through WW1 and then endured WW2, lived with the concept of rationing and making due with what you had. I can only imagine knowing that you had one pint of milk to last for a week, and needing to develop a strategy to consciously limit consumption. If the milk is poured first, there can be portion control and predictability.
Other random tea trivia –
Tea isn’t really British at all. Where the first recorded customs of tea drinking date back to third millennium BC in China, it wasn’t until the mid 17th century that the beverage first appeared in England.
Milk vs. Lemon. Some tea purists, believe that adding milk OR sugar OR lemon to tea is wasteful. They argue that tea has such delicate flavors, the addition of sweetener or milk, let alone lemon ruins a perfectly good cup of tea.
Why would we add milk to tea anyway? The first references to milk being added to tea is found in a series of French letters by Madame de Sevigne, who writes about her friend taking tea with milk, “because it was to her taste.” George Orwell preferred his tea with milk rather than cream, and in his essay, “A Nice Cup of Tea,” reminded us that taking tea “Russian style” meant to omit any sugar. On a practical note, though, if we are adding milk to our tea, we are increating our calcium intake and may actually counteract the tooth staining that might come from regular drinking.
A University of Wisconsin study found that adding lemon juice (the enzyme tannase) to black tea, can increase the iron and calcium solubility and therefore absorption by the body.
There are teas that are traditionally best served with lemon. Sir Leigh Teabing, in the Da Vinci Code, tests Robert Langdon’s mettle as a gentleman by trying to see whether Landon chooses to drink a cup of Earl Grey with milk or lemon. The answer was lemon.
Loose Leaf vs. Bag Legend holds that the first tea bag was invented in 1908 by an American, Thomas Sullivan. He shipped samples of his product in silk pouches. His customers dunked the pouch directly into the hot water, rather than emptying it and brewing the loose leaves. They liked the simplicity of the idea, and asked for more. Seven years earlier, though a Milwaukee pair applied for a patent for a “tea leaf holder” that closely resembles what we use today. So, we may not know the truth about who invented it, but we do know that Americans have made quite an impact on this otherwise very British tradition.
A Cuppa and a Comfort
In my world, tea brings people together. There is something in the tea making ritual that is soothing in its repetitive, familiar actions. I relax into the symphony of the sounds of the water bubbling, the sing song of the kettle as it hits the boil, and the clinking of silver spoons on china cups. I make community with others through the sharing of warmth, the breaking of biscuits and the moments of quiet conversation. I connect with my heritage, and make new traditions, and laugh with my friends about the rituals that I follow for no rational reason other than….it’s just the wisdom of tea.