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First addition of milk to tea

Do you take milk with your tea? Such a simple question, but one that’s steeped in a surprisingly long class, colonial and cultural history.

Perhaps spurred on by images of soldiers enjoying sweet post-war brews or the 1980s bubble tea phenomenon, I’ve always assumed milky tea was a more modern tradition. But of course, tea is a truly ancient drink, so it makes complete sense that the origins of adding a dash of dairy go back centuries.

The first written evidence we have for people enjoying tea with dairy-based products is from a Mongolian doctor and writer living in China in the fourteenth century. His name was Hoshoi (or Hu Sihui in Chinese). Not a great deal is known about him except that he was the Imperial physician and dietician for several rather short-lived Emperors between 1314-1321, most notably Buyantu Khan (a direct descendant of Genghis), in a period known as the Yuan dynasty. He later wrote a seminal book called Yinshan Zhengyao, which seems to translate either as “The Essentials of Food and Drink” or “The Principles of Correct Diet” in 1332, which is a fascinating window into early Chinese and Mongol food culture. He writes about all the ancient Chinese herbs and medicines, often relating them to Yin and Yang principles, applying health benefits to balance, nutrition and eating in moderation. What’s interesting is that he regularly refers to the more basic foods of the Mongolian Steppes (as well as Han, Hui and Tibetan ethnic groups) alongside the more elegant, civilised and complex dishes of the Chinese court.

The book is divided into three juan (chapters), and in juan two he lists a series of traditional tea recipes, ones that can still be identified and enjoyed today as ‘Mongolian salty tea’ and ‘Tibetan butter tea’. In his description, taken from The True History of Tea by Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh, he mentions adding butter and curd to make a tea called chao cha (“fried tea”). He says to roast the tea leaves in a wok until red, then boil them with butter and curd, while lan gao (“orchid paste”) was prepared by mixing three spoons of powdered tea with flour and butter and then whisking the paste with hot water. Hoshoi makes a point of mentioning that the Tibetan tea is made using liquid butter made from cow’s milk. It is a recipe that is thought to have originated in Tibet but was later introduced to the Mongols – who in turn incorporated it into their cuisine and culture once the ruling class of the Yuan dynasty (who were of Mongolian descent) ascended the throne.

The next written evidence of tea with milk, and the first time it was observed by anyone outside Asia, was by two envoys of Tsar Mikhail Romanov. In 1616, Russians Vasili Tumenets and Ivan Petrov were sent to meet with Altin Khan, a prominent Mongol prince from the area around Lake Ubsa Nor (north-west region of present-day Mongolia). He controlled the only route to China that didn’t go through hostile territory, so an alliance was worth the demanding three-week trip. The Cossacks and their gifts were received with great delight, and an agreement was formed over an extravagant banquet of meat and game. In their journals, the envoys also noted:

“For drink they brought to table cow’s milk parboiled with butter, and in it unknown leaves of some sort”.

Of course, those unknown leaves were tea, a delicacy that hadn’t yet reached Russia or Europe. As an aside, a later attempt by Russia to form an alliance with China failed in 1654, when the envoy Fedor Baikov not only refused to kowtow but also spurned the offer of a ceremonial cup of tea, prepared the Manchu way with milk and butter.

The first European to experience tea with milk and write about it was a Dutchman called Johan (Jean) Nieuhof, a traveller and chronicler. He had many jobs in many parts of the world, but in 1655 he was a representative of the Dutch East India Company, hoping to negotiate trading rights on China's southern coast with the young Qing emperor, who was 18 at the time. About a great banquet given by this Shunzhi Emperor for the Dutch trade delegation just outside Canton, he wrote:

“At the beginning of the Dinner, there were served several bottles of The or Tea, served to the Table, whereof they drank to the Embassadors, bidding them welcom: This drink is made of the Herb The or Cha, after this manner: They infuse half a handful of the Herb The or Cha in fair water, which afterwards they boil till a third part be consumed, to which they adde warm milk about a fourth part, with a little salt, and then they drink it as hot as they can well endure.”

It’s not unreasonable to believe the Dutch brought this new tea tradition back to Europe with them, although Nieuhof’s book “The Embassy of the Oriental Company of the United Province to the Emperor of China” wasn’t actually published until 1665.

The first, and next, evidence of milky tea being drunk came from London, written in an incredibly long and detailed advert titled “An exact Description of the Growth, Quality, and Vertues of the Leaf Tea.” This ad was written by Thomas Garraway, who was an early tobacco, tea and coffee merchant with a shop in Exchange Alley, near the Royal Exchange. In it he waxes lyrical about the humble tea leaf, giving it all sorts of remarkable properties such as making the body active and lusty, helping the headache, giddiness, and heaviness, removing difficulty of breathing, clearing the sight, removing lassitude, strengthening the stomach and liver, causing good appetite and digestion, vanquishing heavy dreams.”. And so it goes on (well, he was trying to sell the stuff!). But interestingly, he also hints at how this new China tea should be drunk by the English:

It (being prepared and drank with Milk and Water) strengtheneth the inward parts, and prevents Consumptions, and powerfully asswageth the pains of the Bowels, or griping of the Guts and Looseness.”

The advert is thought to date from between 1660-1668, making it one of the earliest and best accounts of the use and prices of tea in England – and a document you can still inspect for real in the British Museum.

The person who is generally credited with popularising the tradition of adding milk to tea, especially in the European upper classes, was an important figure in French high society called Madame Marguerite Hessein de la Sablière. In 1669, she started a literary salon in her home on the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs in Paris. It quickly established itself as one of the capital’s most important cultural gatherings, where the great and the good of Europe (like Molière and Racine) gathered to talk literature, philosophy and drink tea, which by 1680 she was commonly serving with milk.

There’s a widespread and popular misconception that when pouring, she added milk first to stop her small, delicate and expensive porcelain teacups, imported especially from China, from cracking due to the heat. Yet porcelain, and especially bone china (which used actual bone ash in its manufacture), was well known and well-admired as a perfect material for the new hot drinks trend sweeping the world. In fact, it was considered far superior to the more commonly available drinking vessels and mugs of the time, which were made of metal (which conducted heat) or earthenware pottery (which would crack and degrade quickly).

Madame de la Sablière’s penchant for milk is corroborated by a French aristocrat and famous letter writer named Marie de Rabutin Chantal, the Marquise de Sévigné. In a letter to her daughter in February 1680, she mentions the growing ritual, “It is true that Madame de la Sablière takes tea with her milk; she told me the other day; it is her taste.…”.

It’s likely that Madame de la Sablière had access to the finest tea available at the time, but it is also said that others started to add milk to dilute the strength of the new drink and make it more palatable. This is not unreasonable. Tea was imported from China, which took many months by ship, and was often stored badly, exposing it to the elements. Of course, this meant the quality was often poor, so it is said some added milk to dilute some of the more ‘pungent’ flavours!

By the late seventeenth century, tea with milk had become so fashionable and ritualistic that specialist equipment was being manufactured. In Britain, which had taken to tea in a BIG way, adopting it almost immediately as their national drink, the milk bottle had been invented. In 1698, a Lady Rachel Russell wrote to her daughter about some of these small bottles she’d seen at tea parties across London, explaining, “Yesterday, I met with little bottles to pour milk out for tea; they call them milk bottles. I was much delighted with them, and so put them up to a present for you.”

After these early adopters in British and French high society, who were essentially the ‘milk in tea’ trendsetters, there was no stopping the craze for a dash of dairy. And to think, it all started when the Mongolians added butter to their brew around 800 years ago!


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