Earl Grey - Fact & Fiction
“Easily the most popular of the English tea blends, Earl Grey may seem as timeless as tea itself, but this tea is a surprisingly young blend with a checkered history that few can seem to agree on.
The Tea Itself
Traditional Earl Grey is a blend of black tea flavored with the essence of Bergamot rind, though the name may also be used to refer to any tea—black or otherwise—that uses bergamot as a flavoring (such as our organic green Earl Grey, and our organic Earl Grey rooibos blends). Bergamots are small tart oranges native to southern Vietnam that research suggests are a cross between the sweet lemon, Citrus limetta, and the sour orange, C. aurantium, and the essential oils from their rinds are what give Earl Grey its characteristic flavor. Consequently, the tea often sees use in all manner of confectionary, lending a subtle, citrusy zest to chocolates, cakes, or sauces.
The famous tea is named for an English prime minister, Lord Charles Grey the second, from the 1830s who first popularized its consumption. There is a popular legend that the Earl received the tea as a gift from a grateful Mandarin after one of his men saved the Mandarin (or his son, depending on which version of the story you hear) from drowning. Charming though it is, the story has no basis in fact, because the Earl never traveled to China during his life. Beyond that, no records indicate that the Bergamot was even cultivated in China at that time, so this tea would have been a very unusual gift!
Nevertheless, the current Earl Grey, Lord Charles Grey the sixth, maintains that at the very least his ancestor was given the tea as a gift from a Chinese envoy, and he endorses Twinings of London’s recipe for the tea. Interestingly, the English teahouse Jacksons of Piccadilly also claims to be in possession of the original recipe for Earl Grey, having received it from the Earl himself in 1830.
The Truth About Earl Grey
While the history of this tea may be up in the air, there is no doubt that Earl Grey is a positively delightful tea enjoyed by millions the world over. Whether you take your tea with milk and sugar, or hot and plain, Earl Grey is always a tasty decision!"
I think this convoluted history is pretty interesting. Thoughts?
Earl Grey seems to be in the realm of myth, legend, and truth that may be stanger than fiction. Personally, the mystery adds intrigue to drinking it for me, it is as if the door is still open for an exciting climax when the facts are known. I have read the same background you described, but almost always wonder in the course of a cup or two what the “real” story is.
Here is the “true” story of earl grey:
Just got a chance to see this, funny stuff indeed!
I wonder if Powdermilk Biscuits are a good pairing with Earl Grey?
I’ve thought that assuming the Chinese trade bit is true, that perhaps the Earl was trying to have the taste of one of those oolong-stuffed citrus fruits replicated. On the other hand, he might simply have been cheap. :)
Originally bergamot oil was used to make somewhat expensive imported Chinese tea taste like staggeringly expensive imported Chinese tea. :) It was a bit of an open secret.
Here’s a bit from a 1824 newspaper article:
“To render Tea at 5s. a pound equal to Tea at 12s. – (adjusted for inflation, that’s about $28.74 per pound and $69.08 per pound.)
The cheapest and most expensive teas are all the leaves of the same tree, at least they should be so, and if there were no sloe-leaves nor privet-leaves, they would be so. The high flavour, therefore, of some of the sorts of tea, and the want of flavour in others, must arise from the manner of preparing them, and must be in some measure artificial. It follows, that if we can discover any fine flavoured substance, and add it to the tea in a proper manner, so as to make it agree and harmonise with the original flavour, we shall be able to improve low-priced and flavourless tea, into a high priced article of fine flavour. The flavouring substance found to agree best with the original flavour of tea, is the oil of bergamot; by the proper management of which you may produce from the cheapest teas the finest flavoured bloom, hyson, gunpowder, and cowslip. There are two ways of managing the bergamot. Purchase at the perfumers some of the perfumed pieces of wood, which they call bergamot fruit. Keep one such piece in your canister, and it will flavour the tea in the same way as a Tonquin bean flavours snuff. If the canister be a small one, the flavour perhaps would be too strong; in that case you may chip the bergamot fruit in pieces, and put only a little bit among your tea. Or procure a small phial of the oil of bergamot; take some of the smallest of your tea and add it to a few drops of the oil, till you form a sort of paste, which is to be carefully mixed with the whole tea, in proportion to its quantity and the degree of flavour you like best. If you make the flavour too strong, you have always on easy remedy, namely, by adding more unfavoured tea. When it is thus improved, it is often sold at 18s. and a guinea, a pound. Cowslip tea has been as high as 32s. ($184.21!)"
On the third hand, it might simply be named after a tea dealer, and only later adopted by the Earl.
“Earl Grey’s Mixture” was popularized by Jacksons of Picadilly (bought out by long-time competitor Twinings in 1990), who acquired the recipe from tea dealer George Charlton of 48 Charing Cross, who started offering it in 1836. However, in the early 1800s, 48 Charing Cross was home to grocer and tea dealer “Thorpe & Grey”… Maybe simply a coincidence?