Milk in First

A recent article in the Sunday Telegraph describes its reporter’s experiences in a venture 

…at the Lanesborough hotel in London, which has recently launched an afternoon tea etiquette experience in partnership with Debrett’s, which has been Britain’s authority on etiquette and influence since 1769.

In the course of the article, Evelyn Waugh is quoted on an important element of tea lore. The instructor emphasizes:

…this is important: tea before milk, always.” 20th-century novelist Evelyn Waugh famously touched on this peculiarly prized classist fetishism of the English when wrote about the concept of a ‘milk-in-first’ sort of person in his diary. “People who could only afford cheap porcelain put the milk in beforehand to avoid cracking their cups with boiling water,” [the instructor] explains. Neither of the experts argues that tea in first actually enhances taste. The idea of a ‘rules-before-rationale’ sort of person comes to mind — though admittedly it doesn’t have the same ring.

In his 1955 “Open Letter to the Honble Mrs Peter Rodd (Nancy Mitford) on a Very Serious Subject,” Waugh himself had a rather different explanation from that of the instructor:

All nannies and many governesses, when pouring out tea, put the milk in first. (It is said by tea-fanciers to produce a richer mixture.) Sharp children notice that this is not normally done in the drawing-room. To some this revelation becomes symbolic. We have a friend you may remember, far from conventional in other ways, who makes it her touchstone. “Rather MIF, darling,” she says in condemnation. (Essays, Articles and Reviews, pp. 298-99.)

 It might also be noted that putting the milk in first avoids confronting another dilemma mentioned in the Telegraph article:

Stirring tea clockwise is a crime. Anti-clockwise is equally delinquent — only a back-and-forth motion from 12 o’clock to six o’clock is permissible…


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