Enjoying a cup of tea while watching the premiere of Downton Abbey, Season 3 tomorrow night may seem like an activity without controversy, but when tea drinkers choose to add milk to their cup they become as divided as the upstairs Crawley's and their downstairs staff.
Downton Abbey, a Masterpiece Theatre series on PBS, follows the lives of Lord and Lady Grantham, British aristocrats in the Edwardian period, their family and the team of servants who cook, clean and serve them tea. How the wealthy took their tea at that time was as distinct from the staff as the manner of their dress. The Crawley's, if they added milk to their tea, would surely be "M.I.L.'s" (milk-in-last) while O'Brien the lady's maid and her conniving partner, Thomas the valet, would no doubt be adding milk-in-first, as "M.I.F.'s."
In Bruce Richardson's blog, The Tea Maestro "When to Add Milk to Tea", he discusses the origins and theories behind the class distinction of milk-in-first or milk-in-last. As Richardson explains, the habit of putting milk in tea reportedly started in France with Madame de Sévigné. It is reported that she did so because it was to her taste.
According to the website of Fortnum and Mason, (the upscale London department store which houses a number of tea rooms and sells its own signature teas), it was the author Evelyn Waugh who recorded a friend using the phrase ‘rather milk in first’ to refer to a lower-class person and the habit became a social divider that had little to do with the taste of the tea.
Richardson speculates that Carson the butler would advise the Dowager Countess to put the milk in last as another butler from a similar TV series did so before him. In the BBC's Upstairs, Downstairs, the butler gave the following advice to the household servants who were arguing about the virtues of milk before or after the tea is poured:
"Those of us downstairs put the milk in first, while those upstairs put the milk in last."
Tomorrow night, tea drinkers may be divided as to how they add their milk, but they will unite around the screen for Downton Abbey's season premiere.