I have been following with interest the great tea controversy which has hit the media recently. In case you have missed it, Michelle Francl, a chemistry professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, has written a book on the molecular science behind a good cup of tea which claims that a tiny amount of salt in tea blocks the perception of bitterness.
You probably need to be British to understand that you can’t mess around with our iconic cuppa of hot tea. The idea of adding salt is close to heresy. There hasn’t been as much controversy around the land of my birth’s favorite beverage since the heavy taxes imposed on tea by the English King George II led to a boycotting of tea in the American colonies. Of course, this patriotic fervor by the American revolutionaries culminated in the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, and several other incidents of “tea dumping” in major ports along the eastern seaboard. Renouncing tea was seen as a sign of patriotism and a desire for independence so many ladies substituted imported tea leaves with local weeds, herbs and infusions, a period of history which may explain a great deal about the quality of most American tea in my opinion! I learned early on in my life in the Coastal Empire that when ordering tea in most restaurants in America, the experience of receiving a cup of microwaved warmish water with a cheap, weak tea bag hanging over the side is beyond disappointing.
It is a shame that things got so bad here in terms of tea because the tradition of tea drinking was originally brought to the American colonies (as they were at the time) by British and Dutch immigrants. By 1757, tea had become such a vital part of society that Manhattan established special “tea water pumps” and the City of New York enacted laws concerning the quality of water for making tea. The Americans’ love of tea was so great that in the years leading up to the Revolution the per capita consumption was greater here than back in England. But about that time a more highly caffeinated hot drink started to grow in popularity, and America has been a coffee nation ever since.
When I first came to America, I was surprised to learn that asking for tea – sweetened or unsweetened – meant what the British describe as “iced tea.” This was invented at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair when a tea vendor tired of selling his hot tea in the summer heat, began to drop ice in the beverage to increase sales. Refreshed fairgoers took the idea home with them and the rest is (American) history.
Back in the often chilly and rainy UK, hot tea is a ritual and the typical British response to any calamity, social occasion or lull in activity is to put the kettle on for a nice cuppa. Filling and boiling the (usually electric) kettle, warming the teapot with hot water then emptying it before adding traditional tea leaves or high-quality tea bags and putting the boiling water in (ALWAYS boiling, never just hot), then leaving it to steep or ‘brew’ for a few minutes before pouring into tea cups is vital. These are traditionally black teas such as Assam, Darjeeling, Earl Grey or most often a blend described as “English Breakfast Tea”.
Even among the British there has long been a great debate about whether to put the milk in the cup first (I always do) although the American Professor Fancl says milk should be added after the hot tea is poured. I do not take sugar in my tea (the older British generation traditionally decline the standard offer of sugar with the comment that “they are sweet enough already”) but sugar cubes, white granulated sugar or brown demerara sugar is usually offered to be added and stirred into the “cup that cheers but does not inebriate”. This phrase was used in the mid-19th century by the British temperance movement to encourage sobriety by switching from gin or other alcoholic beverages to tea.
Back to the recent transatlantic controversy about hot tea. The US Embassy in Britain intervened to distance themselves from the seemingly extremist idea of adding salt. “We cannot stand idly by as such an outrageous proposal threatens the very foundation of our Special Relationship,” the Embassy wrote in a lighthearted social media post. They concluded by saying that the US Embassy “will continue to make tea in the proper way – by microwaving it.”
I say goodbye this week with a quote from English novelist Jasper Forde, which I really relate to: “There is no problem on earth that can’t be ameliorated by a hot bath and a nice cup of tea”.
God Bless America!
– ENDS –