Serving Tea: Milk, Lemon, Sugar or Plain?
If well prepared, your tea needs nothing more than for you to enjoy it. Whether you add anything else is really a matter of taste and tradition. In China and Japan, people prefer their oolong and green teas plain, while the British serve their freshly brewed black teas with a pitcher of milk. In Russia, a dollop of raspberry jam makes the sweetest of teas, and a slice of lemon is often used to brighten Russian tea.
As a rule, you'll find that oolong and green teas are best served plain, while brewed black teas often are enhanced by additional flavorings. The most commonly used flavorings you're likely to come across are milk, lemon, and sugar.
Milk's popularity in tea dates back to a seventeenth-century British custom. Until that time, tea had been served in heavy pewter or earthenware cups. When porcelain cups came into British vogue, milk was added because it was feared that adding hot black tea directly to the delicate china cup would cause it to crack. This wasn't the case, but, like the porcelain cup, adding milk became a hard habit to break.
Milk reacts chemically with tea. One of its proteins, called casein, binds with certain polyphenols, giving your tea a smoother, less astringent taste. (Polyphenols-or tannins-determine the color, flavor, pungency, and medicinal value of tea; see page 30.) With the full-bodied black teas grown in India and Sri Lanka, milk has a mellowing effect and, some say, actually enhances the flavor.
You'd think adding milk to tea would be a simple task, but entire essays and chapters have been devoted to the how and when of it. It all boils down to two choices: If you pour the milk first and then add the tea, they will blend without so much as a stir. If you add the milk afterward, you'll have more control over the amount of milk you use. Also, and this is getting picky, your cup stays warmer-and so does your tea-if you pour in the hot tea first, followed by the milk.
You'll find that it takes only a teaspoon or two of milk to flavor your tea. If you add more milk, the casein binds with all of the tannins and oppresses the character of the tea. If you run out of milk, don't try cream. It may come from the same cow, but it's no substitute. True cream doesn't have as much casein, so its effect is quite different. It doesn't bind and so does not really complement your tea.
Lemon has been used by the Russians for centuries as a flavoring for freshly brewed tea. Its use was introduced to the Western world by Queen Victoria in the late nineteenth century. The revered ruler of Britain discovered the fashionable and tasty flavoring while visiting Vicky, her eldest daughter, who was married to the Prussian king. While lemon complements the taste of scented tea, it also will brighten the flavor of a black tea.
Sugar, honey, and even raspberry jam have been used for centuries to sweeten tea. In Russia, there is an old custom of holding a cube of sugar between your teeth and sucking your tea through it. Honey, the main sweet food of ancient times, is another popular sweetener. While many commercial honeys simply add sweetness to your tea, others will impart additional aroma and flavor. The honey label will usually tell you the type of flower the bees harvested and what flavor you can expect to taste.