Storm in a Teacup

My Australian family, on both sides, came from staunch tea-drinking traditions: Mum’s father was English and her mother umpteenth-generation Australian, and Dad’s mother was Manx and his father third-generation British colonial from Fiji (where Dad was born, and lived too until his teens). Tea-drinking places, all. Whenever our families would gather, endless cups and pots would be brewed throughout the afternoon as we sat and talked, and pretty early on I was drinking it too.

My parents were a little unusual, though, by 1970s Australian standards, in having a taste for coffee as well, which they’d acquired during travels together in France and Italy in their twenties and by later spending some time in America. Coffee in Australia in the 1970s meant big jars of Nescafé, and when I took up coffee drinking at the start of high school that’s what I drank at first too. As the 1980s progressed, though, Mum and Dad experimented with blends of part-ground, part-instant coffee, prepared in a big upright percolator. We would drink it every morning and late every evening, with copious cups of tea in between on weekends.

I drank tea with milk and two sugars, as God intended (if God was a 1970s Englishman with bad teeth), so when I started drinking coffee I carried the habit over to that as well. It helped mask the more challenging aspects for a young palate of our family’s percolator brew.

By my uni years, better coffee was becoming more widely available in Tasmania, which was slower on the uptake than Mediterranean-immigrant-heavy Melbourne and Sydney. At home we’d switched to a drip coffee maker and then to a plunger—what other English-speaking countries less amusingly call a cafetière or a French press. By now, I’d reduced to a teaspoon of sugar per hot beverage, and sometime in my twenties reduced that further to half a teaspoon, where I settled for years. I couldn’t quite kick it altogether, because coffee and tea didn’t taste right without it.

Then, five years ago, I leafed through my sister-in-law’s copy of Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar while visiting her and my brother in Sydney, and watched the Australian documentary That Sugar Film when I went down to Mum and Dad’s on the same trip, and decided I would get rid of the gratuitous teaspoon or two of sugar a day I was consuming out of habit in tea and coffee. At least, I figured, I would no longer have to remember which mug was mine and which was my wife’s (who has never drunk coffee with sugar, and always hated getting a sip of mine by mistake).

To my surprise, it took no time at all to adapt to coffee without sugar: because I drink it white, the natural sweetness of the milk balances any residual bitterness, not that there’s much of that when you make it properly. After years of using a fancy Bialetti we had switched by now to an AeroPress and had never looked back. (If that’s you as well, make sure you pick up a Prismo attachment for it—they’re worth it.)

But tea was another matter. Even with milk, I found it too bitter without sugar, and started drinking it less and less, which seemed a shame, because I do enjoy a good Ceylon or Lady Grey. After a couple of years I started adding a little sugar—barely a quarter of a teaspoon, but it was enough—to make it palatable again.

Then, yesterday, the UK press were astir over the prescription of an American chemistry professor (or “egghead”, as British journalists know them) for the perfect cup of tea, to which she recommended adding salt, of all things. The outrage! Ridiculous! Americans wouldn’t know a good cup of tea if they boiled their head in it! Etc. The US embassy issued a tongue-in-cheek press release about how this didn’t represent official US policy, and how they would “continue to make tea in the proper way—by microwaving it.” The story even got a few minutes on Radio 4 that evening.

After my own first thought of “saltwater, eurgh”, my second was, “Hmm, I know from Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat that salt is a powerful flavour enhancer, and salted caramel is evidence of that, so… well, I wonder what the chemist actually said?” Here’s what she said:

Adding a pinch of salt—the sodium ion in salt blocks the chemical mechanism that makes tea taste bitter.

That made a lot of sense to me. Why should sugar be the only additive that can mask bitterness? Especially as this was less masking and more a case of changing the chemical composition of the brew. It takes more than a pinch of salt to make seawater.

So I did what nobody commenting on the story online or on air yesterday seemed to do: I tried it. I know, I know: controversial, and possibly also extraordinary. But at great personal risk, by investing a whole teaspoon of Ceylon loose leaves worth possibly six or seven pence, and in danger of having to tip the resultant brew down the drain: I made myself a cup of tea. Then, instead of adding a smidge of sugar as usual, I added a scant pinch—really not much at all—of salt. And stirred.

Suddenly, I had a cup of tea that worked the same way as sugarless white coffee: the sweetness of the milk was enough to provide all the sweetness it needed.

No more sugary tea for me. Press beat-ups are—what’s the word?—ridiculous.

25 January 2024 · Food

Added by Rory on 25 January 2024.