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An American chemist's take on the perfect cup of tea causes a stir in England

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Now to the United Kingdom, where a U.S. scientist's book about tea is making quite a splash - or maybe more of a stir - or has it become a tempest in a teacup? From London, NPR's Lauren Frayer reports on what one American wrote about Britain's national drink and how it landed the U.S. embassy in hot water.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Today was publication day for Michelle Francl, a chemistry professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She thought her new book, called "Steeped: The Chemistry Of Tea," would be a modest little chemistry tome with crossover appeal...

MICHELLE FRANCL: Thinking about caffeine, thinking about the molecules that give it its beautiful aroma.

FRAYER: ...Except there's this one line.

FRANCL: Here's the full book, and I'm going to look to see where I put the salt in.

FRAYER: For the perfect cup of tea, she advises warming the milk to reduce chances of curdling when it hits the water and adding a pinch of salt to make the tea less bitter. Now, to anyone who's ever been in a relationship with a Brit or spent, like, five minutes in the U.K., that sounds like blasphemy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VIC MINETT: This scientist reckons that the only way to have a decent cup of tea is with a pinch of salt.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRAMATIC STING SOUND EFFECT)

MINETT: That's what I said - lunacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TONI MCDONALD: It'll be right. Hot milk and salt - who is this person?

FRAYER: Those are local talk radio hosts Vic Minett and Toni McDonald. They had on-air call-ins today from people like Jane Pettigrew, director of the UK Tea Academy, recipient of multiple World Tea Awards, and contributing editor of TeaTime Magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JANE PETTIGREW: I've just made myself a cup of tea with some salt in it, and I have to say, I don't like it much. It's bizarre. It's very...

FRAYER: It's been 250 years since the last time Americans spoiled a whole lot of British tea with saltwater in Boston Harbor, so the U.S. Embassy in London scrambled to issue a statement today, calling tea the elixir of camaraderie, a sacred bond that unites our nations. Here's the embassy public affairs officer, Rodney Ford.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RODNEY FORD: We want to assure the good people of the U.K. that the unthinkable notion of adding salt to Britain's national drink is not official United States policy and never will be.

FRAYER: Except, as in Francl's book, there's this one little line at the end of the statement. The U.S. embassy will continue to make tea the proper way, it says, by microwaving it. Heads are exploding across these British isles tonight. And in case you didn't catch this, the U.S. embassy staff have a sense of humor.

FRANCL: It mostly seems all within kind of good fun. People are taking it - I'm going to make a terrible pun again - a grain of salt.

FRAYER: (Laughter).

As for the author, Francl, at the center of this whole brew-haha (ph)...

FRANCL: Well, my son lives in London, so now I'm worried - am I going to be able to visit him?

FRAYER: She's pretty sure she'll still be allowed into this country.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF AKEMI FOX SONG, "SO FINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.