The Tea Ceremony

Over at Old Holborn, there has been some debate about whether or not it’s the done thing to put the milk in your cup before pouring in the tea. The answer is, nowadays, neither. Matters of social etiquette do not stand still.

The answer used to be that it’s better to put the milk in before the tea, from the point of view of taste, but that to do so was a sign of being middle or working class. Toffs put the milk in second.

Originally, only the wealthy drank tea and it didn’t matter. Then the institution of the tea break was introduced to British factories and the workers had no choice. They could only afford earthenware cups and these tended to crack if scalding liquids were poured straight into them. The habit developed, therefore, of pouring a little milk into the cup, then the tea into the milk. Those who could afford porcelain started making a point of pouring the tea straight into the cup, then adding milk, to show they could.

This actually affects the taste of the tea detrimentally, though not everyone would notice. Adding the milk to a larger volume of hot tea can scald the milk and spoil its flavour. But it was more important to be obviously well off. These habits persisted well into my lifetime, but by the late 1980s things had changed. In order to differentiate themselves from the middle classes, who had taken to adding the milk second, the upper classes started drinking tea weak, black and with perhaps a twist of lemon.

I was once offered coffee by someone whose daughter had married an Italian Count and to whom this was so important that she habitually called her daughter “the Contessa”. I drink coffee black without sugar, and this happens to be socially correct at the moment, so there were approving nods. She then asked me how I take my tea. This was despite the fact that we were drinking coffee, and was to further probe my social acceptability.

As it happens, I drink different types of tea differently. I always have milk in Assam, and blends based on richer, maltier leaves, sometimes with Ceylon, never with Earl Grey or Chinese teas, and so on. This was not correct, and my standing fell significantly.

This sort of social manoeuvring, in which the higher social orders deliberately differentiate themselves from the middle and lower classes, but then find themselves being imitated and so change their behaviour to differentiate themselves again, is absolutely characteristic of class in Britain.

I came across another example with eye doctors and people who handle spectacles, when I was involved with them while challenging the Optician’s Monopoly. Doctors were, traditionally, of the higher social classes while eye testers and spectacle salesfolk were middle class. Initially, perhapd a hundred years ago, an eye doctor was called an Optician. Then the middle classes started calling themselves Opticians, so eye doctors became Opthalmologists. Then Opthalmic Opticians appeared, creating a social problem that has yet to be resolved.