Friday, November 5, 2010

Why add milk to tea? A historical question

This is not the world's 14,593rd blog post about the merits or crimes of adding milk to tea, whether it should be added first or last, etc. This is an attempt to assemble a bit of historic fact about the reasons this custom started in the first place. I was piqued by an article in the current edition of Tea Time magazine, a discussion of tea cups and their many charms, which mentioned the following while running down the history of this crucial vessel:

But porcelain had its drawbacks, as well. Mme de La Sabliére, a French hostess of an influential literary salon during the 17th century, is often credited with being among the first to add milk to tea. The practice began by pouring milk into the cup before filling it with the hot tea. While tempering the tea in this manner made handling more comfortable, Mme La Sabliére was actually seeking to prevent cracking or breaking the porcelain.

That reason for adding milk was a new one on me. I've always heard this discussed as a matter of taste — originally reported by a different madame, Mme de Sévigné, who wrote a letter commonly cited as one of (never definitive) the first mentions of adding milk to tea. She frequently wrote about tea, among her gossipy details of the Sun King's court, once citing our other madame's custom: "Madame de la Sablière took her tea with milk, as she told me the other day, because it was to her taste."

Every other mention of adding milk to tea that I've ever read approaches it from that perspective, of taste, which frankly always struck me oddly (even though tea's Asian origins have a long history with dairy products, often from animals other than cows, namely butter). Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson's New Tea Companion still features a page about "Milk in Tea," suggesting in the section's first sentence that the custom "perhaps developed because milk and cream were found to soften the slightly bitter taste of tea." In their earlier version of the book, however, The Tea Companion, published just a year before in 2004, they at least addressed the other possibility by way of questioning what the initial motives might have been, adding, "Or was a little milk poured into the Chinese tea bowls used in the 17th and 18th centuries before the hot tea in order to reduce the risk of shattering the fine porcelain?" For the second edition, they excised this thought. (They also added that Ms. Sabliére was alone in her taste for this combination, that it didn't catch on in France before that country moved squarely into the coffee camp.)

Victor Mair and Erling Hoh's great True History of Tea gives similar credit to our French madame, but states no particular motivation:

While milk tea was drunk by the Manchu officials that the Europeans would have encountered, and the Dutchman Johann Nieuhoff had been offered tea with milk at a banquet in Canton in 1655, the honor of introducing the custom to Europe is traditionally ascribed to Madame de la Sabliére, who in 1680 served tea with milk at her famous Paris salon ...

Their discussion of this, however, comes two paragraphs after exploring the development of porcelain, "with its translucent fragility."

As someone who's had that experience — I once poured boiling water into a large glass infusion jar, to sterilize it, and watched the bottom quickly crack and crash into the sink — I can see how the practical matter would drive the custom rather than the questionable taste involved. Just found this curious. If anyone has other primary sources of information on this, do tell.


  1. Glass is one thing; it is sensitive to rapid heating or cooling.

    But I never heard of porcelain or any kind of earthenware being fragile in that way. On the contrary.

    The Chinese in principle do not use milk, so I would be surprised if the Manchu officials drank milk tea, unless they were not Chinese but from some different race of nomadic pastoral people, European rather than Asian in their tastes.

    In Europe we add milk or cream to just about everything: soup, mashed potatoes, porridge, coffee, cocoa - because we think it improves the taste.

    1. The Manchus are actually not technically Chinese by origin. They came from the north, I believe near the Korea area and conquered Chin and thus began their rule and assimilation. Since they came from the north near the mongols (who use milk a lot) I'm not surprised if the Manchu officials did drink their tea with milk.

  2. Black tea contains oxalic acid. This acid can disrupt calcium flow in the body. Adding milk to black tea helps counter this. Lemon is added to black tea to break down tannins. English high tea features both of these practices.

  3. Whether milk is used to improve the taste or prevent the ceramic and glass from cracking in the europe, i believe it has never been used by the original inventers of the tea.. I also believe that nothing should be added to tea as it kills the actual distinctive taste. Same goes for the coffee as i am a purist and most things taste better and original when not mixed with anything including spirits and brandy etc..

  4. In response to an earlier comment that stated:
    The Chinese in principle do not use milk, so I would be surprised if the Manchu officials drank milk tea, unless they were not Chinese but from some different race of nomadic pastoral people, European rather than Asian in their tastes.

    I would like to point out that although the Manchus ruled as the last Chinese Dynasty (Qing), they were not Chinese (Han). They had their own customs, which may easily have included adding milk to tea.

  5. The fervor this topic provokes is as interesting as the topic itself.

  6. I've heard that it was used by unscrupulous employers to shorten the length of tea breaks by the workers. before the introduction of the milk the workers would have longer breaks to allow the black tea to cool to a drinkable temperature- adding milk cooled the drink, shrinking the time it took to drink- increasing working time,

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