While there are numerous opinions about when and how this tea blend was created, they all center on a political figure of the 18th century – Earl Grey. Earl Grey, the person, was born Charles Grey II in England in 1764. He spent most of his life in politics and in 1830, became Prime Minister of Britain.
One of the versions of how Earl Grey tea got its name tells that during his political career, the Earl was very taken with a diplomatic gift he received – a chest of flavored black tea. He liked the tea so much that he asked British tea merchant Richard Twining to match the flavor of this mysterious tea. Twining created a blend of Indian and Ceylon black tea and added a bit of smoky Chinese Lapsang Souchong. He also used a special and rare ingredient which lent this tea its unique citrus fragrance and flavor. Since Twining blended the tea especially for the Earl, it was only fitting to name it after him – Earl Grey!
More recently, Earl Grey tea has made a number of appearances in movies: It is the favorite tea of Captain Picard of Star Trek, The Next Generation. If you are familiar with Dan Brown’s book “The Davinci Code”, you know that one of his characters, Sir Leigh Teabing, also liked his cup of Earl Grey!
The secret of Earl Grey – the tea that is, – lies in this special ingredient, the oil of bergamot fruit (Citrus bergamia risso). As secret as the ingredient, as secret is the place where we find bergamot. It is in San Gregorio, a tiny village in the province of Reggio Calabria, the southernmost part of the Italian boot where bergamot grows in luscious orchards that supply 95% of the world’s bergamot – this inedible fruit that gives Earl Grey its unique character and citrus flavor.
The fruit weighs about 3.5 ounces and is harvested in early spring. In the early days, the essence was extracted by squeezing the rind manually and collecting the liquid onto natural sea sponges that were wrung into bottles. This slow and messy work was later replaced by the macchina Calabrese, a wooden grinding wheel with a box to collect the essence. It takes 100 pounds of fruit to make one pound of essence, making bergamot an expensive flavoring agent.
While there are less expensive, synthetically created essences that resemble the flavor of bergamot, the purest and finest bergamot essence can only be found in Calabria and a powerful agricultural consortium, the Consortia Del Bergamotto is responsible for overseeing its production and for making decisions which affect the global tea industry.
The next time you purchase Earl Grey, let your tea purveyor lift the secret of its secret ingredient and make sure you get to enjoy a cup of true bergamot scented tea!
As for the equally well known “Lady Grey” black tea blend, which by the way is only blended and sold by Twining, it is named after Mary Elizabeth Grey, wife of Charles II.
People used to say that Earl Grey was too strong for the delicate female constitution and could cause rather strange impulses. Therefore, Lady Grey was blended to suit the female palette better and to ease women’s minds and hearts.
Our rendition on this lighter Earl Grey is called Grey Duchess, and blended with lavender and vanilla – truly a delight!