Can a simple cup of tea stir a dispute between two mighty countries on opposite sides of the Atlantic? Just ask the ragtag group of patriots who crudely disguised themselves and hurled chests of tea into Boston Harbor.
For a new book, an academic took a look at papers and texts covering more than 1,000 years to try to determine the best way to make a cuppa.
The conclusions of this author, Michelle Francl, a chemistry professor at Bryn Mawr College, included the expected (use tea bags only once) and the interesting (add warm milk after pouring the tea to prevent curdling).
But at least one of the recommendations was incendiary. Professor Francl advised adding a pinch of salt. Salt!
The theory is that sodium makes the tea taste less bitter.
Once again, in case you missed it: Salt. In your tea.
Professor Francl hastens to say she doesn’t dump a shakerful in every cup. The main reason to add salt is that it can rescue tea if the bag has been left too long in the water. “The sodium blocks the bitter receptors,” she said. “The tea tastes smoother and less bitter.” She advises adding just a pinch: “so little that you can’t taste the saltiness of it.”
In making her case, Professor Francl noted that the “Book of Tea” by Lu Yu from the eighth century A.D. suggested routinely adding salt.
Professor Francl took her research for the book, “Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea,” seriously. She was able to read manuscripts from as far back as the time of Christ. When advice conflicted, as it often did, she turned to “the preponderance of the weight of the evidence.” And she also “definitely tried stuff, much to the amusement of my family.”
For example, she used temperature sensors to see if it really matters whether you warm the pot. (It does.)
The unconventionality of her advice on salt caused a stir, shall we say, especially in Britain, a place where tea drinking is profoundly ingrained. And some of the focus was inevitably on the author’s nationality: American.
There is the lingering suspicion on the sceptered isle that, much like Yorkshire pudding and Branston Pickle, Americans just don’t get tea.
“The British say we don’t know what we’re doing,” Professor Francl said. And what did her research find? “We don’t know what we’re doing.”
“I have trouble getting a good cup in a restaurant” stateside, she said ruefully.
Ted Lasso, the fish-out-of-water American sitcom character trying to make his way in the quintessentially British world of soccer, said: “Tea is horrible. Absolute garbage water.” So can an American have anything to teach the British about tea?
Maybe not if that lesson includes a mention of salt. “Good Morning Britain,” the ITV news program, said that adding salt to tea “feels like a crime.” The Daily Mail’s headline claimed that the suggestion left “Brits at boiling point.”
In the interest of transatlantic harmony, it is worth noting that Professor Francl’s book is published by the Britain-based Royal Society of Chemistry.
Perhaps not since The New York Times urged readers to put peas in their guacamole has a food recommendation raised such hackles.
Of course, salt in tea is not completely unheard-of. Tibetan butter tea includes salt, for example.
So is all of this a, well, tempest in a teapot? Hardly. No less a body than the United States Embassy in London made a statement on the matter. Tongue apparently in cheek, it said, “We cannot stand idly by as such an outrageous proposal threatens the very foundation of our Special Relationship.”
And it affirmed “that the unthinkable notion of adding salt to Britain’s national drink is not official United States policy. And never will be.”
The anonymous author of the statement could not resist adding, “The U.S. Embassy will continue to make tea in the proper way — by microwaving it.”
While the embassy is (probably) joking about that last part, it is not the best idea. Indeed, Professor Francl said that if she could distill her many tips on tea down to just two, one would be: Do not heat the water in the microwave.
”A white film can form,” she said. “Tea scum, like the scum in your bathtub, making a less scented, less tasty cup of tea.”
But it’s not too late to rescue even a disaster like scummy tea. “A little lemon will get rid of it,” she advised.
Her second key tip is to dunk your tea bag up and down. “Better contact between the solvent and the tea leaves,” she said. (The solvent is the water, for you non-chemistry majors.)
Professor Francl doesn’t spend all her time over a kettle. Her work also includes research into the structure of molecules that “misbehave,” perhaps tying themselves in knots or taking the shape of a Möbius strip. Such misbehaving molecules can appear in interstellar space.
But not in a pot of tea.