My friend is normally a rational, kind, reasonable sort of person.

But there’s this tea thing.

If you dare pour in the tea before you pour in the milk, you face a tirade of explosive accusations: ‘How could you possibly pour in the tea before pouring in the milk? How were you brought up!’ etc.

tea cup

Tea with Milk

Now, see, I’ve had plenty of embarrassing situations in my long life. I have forgotten names and called Bob ‘Jim’ and Sally ‘Marie.’ I have spoken audibly in sacred spaces, between ablutions and blessings. I have cheered when a goal is scored – against the wrong team. I’ve worn the wrong clothes, used too much salt, backed the wrong horse, played the wrong chord.

But blaspheming the tea ritual, in some circles, seems a capital offence.

Can my leaf addicted friends explain what is so important about the tea and milk thing? Certainly the laws of convection would eventually have the brown and white substances combine into a satisfactory taffy colour, and doesn’t tea taste the same whichever liquid is first dispensed?

This summer I found the answer to this pressing issue.

While visiting the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK, and the famous Cutty Sark, a clipper ship from 1869 that brought tea from China, I learned something very interesting about this mysterious beverage.

I learned that in the very early days of tea drinking, fashionable tea cups were crafted with such delicate, thin material that they could easily crack when hot tea was poured in. They found pouring the cool milk first and then the hot tea protected the fragile porcelain from damage. Subsequent improvements in the manufacture of teacups made them much stronger, and the risk of cracking under the heat was virtually erased. So really, the method of pouring milk first is an anachronistic habit that has no real meaning. Yet dedicated tea drinkers cling to this modus operandi and god help you if you try something different.

Of course, as is my own well-worn habit on this blog, these daily details cause me to reflect. Why do we do things the way we do? Are there routines in my own life that are ‘hangovers’ from the past, that really don’t have any meaning?

Perhaps I’ve found my New Year’s resolution: to challenge old habits; to question tired methods; to test the value of comfortable rituals; to try new ways of doing things. (run Star Trek opening theme music here.….)

Tah dah!

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6 Responses to Tea with Milk

  1. Andrew says:

    Love it, Steph! “We’ve always done it this way,” heard extremely often in liturgical circles.

    One of my life habits, formed when I was a child who was told not to ask “why?” so much (those were the days when you accepted the pronouncements of adults as Gospel truths, and if you didn’t, frequently received the response “Because…” as if that explained it all!), was and still is to challenge assumptions (yes, even including my own) and evaluate so-called “traditions” in the light of day to see if they still have integrity and meaning.

    Not drinking milk, I rarely have to worry about the order, and the gradual demise of the civilised tea party has seen less use of delicate china and porcelain. The logical thing is to pour the tea, then pour the milk (if you’re doing it for someone else); that way, they can tell you when to stop and they get exactly the right amount of milk to go with the strength of the tea being poured. Doing it milk first leaves you unable to adjust the proportions to the strength of the brewed tea coming out of the (china) pot.

    And the next pet peeve, on which you could opine, is the use of silver tea pots! Certainly fashionable at one time, but totally destroys the flavour of the tea. Or does it?!

  2. Richard Birney-Smith says:

    Margaret Visser’s books are marvelous for learning about our often-antiquated rituals. One of my favourites is the habit of alternating men and women around the dinner table. Reason? Way back in time before flatware became normal in polite society, only men carried knives. A woman therefore needed a man to cut her food into morsels that were small enough to pick up with her fingers. Centuries later, we still do it.

    • Stephanie Martin says:

      Mystery solved. Thanks for that RBS. I always questioned that seating plan. I’ll make sure, when next setting the table, that all the ladies have knives! Love Margaret Visser : )

  3. Cate Falconer says:

    I would like to offer that pouring the milk first does, actually, have a purpose, especially if the milk has come directly from the cold. Pouring the milk first and waiting a bit before adding the tea allows the milk to warm up a bit. The tea will be a little warmer as a result. Of course, some tea drinkers would wonder about adding milk at all…

  4. Gil McElroy says:

    I was chastised about this long ago, and informed that one must warm the milk, not cool the tea. Oh well. In the end, though, isn’t it equivalent to which way the toilet paper roll is put on the dispenser? Some people get all bent out of shape about it, but in the end (no pun intended!) it all works out either way

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