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A pinch of salt to improve the tea: The recipe from a US scientist that unleashed the wrath of the United Kingdom

Even the American embassy in London entered into the polemic, with an ironic message that distanced it from the academic’s recommendations

Rafa de Miguel

It goes without saying that tea, like coffee, is a religion. And religious wars are always the bitterest. A U.S. scientist’s suggestion that a pinch of salt be added while brewing to obtain the perfect cuppa has unleashed the wrath of many Brits. And it has forced the U.S. embassy, to ironically distance itself from the recommendation of its countrywoman, and to clarify that her tip is not official Washington doctrine.

Michelle Francl, chemistry professor at Pennsylvania’s Bryn Mawr College, is a committed tea drinker in a country seemingly addicted to watered-down coffee. She has spent countless hours analyzing the process behind the perfect brew, and poured all of that knowledge into the book Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea.

“You get some awful cups of tea in the U.S. It’s horrific. I grew up in the Midwest, which is deep coffee-drinking country, but tea has always been my preferred drink – and I have invested a lot of time into studying it,” explains Francl in an interview with The Guardian. In an article for Chemistry World, she says that she consulted over 500 texts to come up with the ideal formula.

For more traditional Brits, and for devotees and converts to the religion of tea — this writer is one of them — many of the complaints, suggestions and techniques shared by the U.S. academic make all the sense in the world. Still, she has committed two unforgivable sacrileges. In the first place, she tries to explain to the British, all the way on the other side of the pond, how to make tea. This is akin to the English trying to explain to a Spaniard the true recipe for paella (with chorizo, of course) or telling an Italian the trick to making a good spaghetti a la carbonara (with cream and English bacon). In the second place, she proposes the heresy that tea tastes better with a pinch of salt — no matter that the chemistry behind the tip makes all the sense in the world.

In her book, Francl argues that a little sodium added to a brew helps to block the chemical reaction that can make tea taste bitter. Something similar is achieved, she adds, by squeezing the bag containing the chopped leaf, in order to reduce the aroma of its tannins.

“Very smart science, but Francl is incapable of answering whether this is good or bad,” writes Tony Turnbull, gastronomic specialist for the daily newspaper The Times. “I’ve always thought that the key to tea was precisely this point of bitterness (due to its tannins, effectively). It’s supposed to be a stimulating drink, not a calming one. I’m unconvinced by her suggestion.” In his indignation, the critic goes even further, reproaching Francl for even daring to offer her opinion, not on whether milk should be poured in before or after tea — “after, for God’s sake,” Turnbull clarifies — but on the temperature of the milk. It should be approaching lukewarm, says Francl, but not cold, to prevent it from curdling and from overly changing the temperature of the brew. “I know, it’s crazy,” writes the Times expert in response to such a suggestion.

The American embassy in the United Kingdom attempted to bring some irony and level-headedness to a diplomatic conflict that was rapidly spiraling out of control. In an official statement, it made clear “to the good people of the UK that the unthinkable notion of adding salt to Britain’s national drink is not official United States policy. And never will be.”

The punchline came at the end of the memo, which assured that “the U.S. Embassy will continue to make tea in the proper way — by microwaving it.”

Because the truth is, many of the tea atrocities committed in the United States — and half the planet — and which Francl denounces, are practiced by many of this religion’s devotees, including the expert gastronome of the Times. Such as utilizing the microwave, bathing the tea in warm water, or reusing the tea bag.

And her suggestions are, to a large extent, correct. For example, pre-heating the teapot or cup to slow down the cooling of the infusion. Using shallow cups to better maintain temperature. Stirring or squeezing the tea bag to “expose the tea leaves more evenly to the solvent and extract more catechins—tea’s signature antioxidants,” as recommends Francl.

Despite the controversy stirred up by her boldness, the U.S. academic has merely followed in the footsteps of such great authors as George Orwell (whom she cites as a source of inspiration) and Christopher Hitchens, who devoted his own essays to the art of making a good cup of tea. “Next time you are in a Starbucks or its equivalent,” Hitchens said, launching his attack on the well-known U.S. café chain. “And want some tea, don’t be afraid to decline that hasty cup of hot water with added bag. It’s not what you asked for. Insist on seeing the tea put in first, and on making sure that the water is boiling. If there are murmurs or sighs from behind you, take the opportunity to spread the word.”

At the end of the day — except on the debatable salt trick — any Brit, including Orwell, could sign off on Fracl’s recommendations. What hurts is that they came from the other side of the Atlantic.

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