Earl Grey Tea

Brief History of Earl Grey Tea

Bergamot oil used in scenting Earl Grey tea comes from the citrus fruit (Bergamot orange) mostly grown in the Calabria province in southern Italy. It became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries as a flavouring for gin and snuff. There are different theories about the origins of earl grey tea, the most recent one claims that the botanist Sir George Staunton (1737-1801) first observed tea flavouring with orange in China where he was Secretary to the British mission to the Chinese Imperial court. He allegedly sent a sample of tea with Neroli oil to the British naturalist and explorer Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), where  is known to have experimented with flavourings.

That is why some credit him with adding bergamot to tea. It was most likely given the name Earl Grey, after Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (1764-1845), the UK's Prime Minister of the time, who supposedly received the tea with bergamot as a gift.

About the Bergamot Orange (Citrus Bergamia)

Named for the first time in the book Histoire Naturelle des Orangers (Natural History of Orange Trees) published in1818 (Paris) by Pierre Antoine Poiteau (1766-1854) and Joseph Antoine Risso (1777-1845).

Antonio Rapisarda and Maria Paola Germano cite in ‘Citrus Bergamia Bergamot and Its Derivatives’ that although widespread in the Mediterranean for centuries, there is uncertainty about both the geographical and botanical origins of the bergmot orange. 

They point out that: “it is possible that bergamot is native of Calabria, deriving by mutation from other species even if other probable places of origin may be the Antilles, Greece, and the Canary Islands, where Columbus would bring the plant in Europe, arriving at Calabria from the Spanish city of Berga, hence the name of bergamot.”

Another theory has it that it is named after a Turkish term for the fruit meaning ‘pear of the Prince’ hence ‘Beg-armundi‘.

Real Earl Grey
Loose leaf black tea frgaranced with bergamot and cornflowers
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There is speculation about the hybrid origin of the fruit. It is thought to be a hybrid between a lemon and a sour orange, but others believe it to be a hybrid of lime and orange. Francesco Crispo (in another chapter of ‘Citrus Bergamia Bergamot and Its Derivatives’) notes that “Bergamot was defined by its growers as the ‘green gold’ because in the past even a small piece of land with Bergamot cultivation was sufficient to feed a family. ‘Small is beautiful’ could be the motto for this Italian excellency…”

The first and most signifcant use of the essential oil extracted from the bergamot orange dates back to 1704 when the oil was used an by Italian peddler Gian Paolo Femenis who took it to Cologne and created an eau de toilet that we now know as Eau de Cologne. This he patented, as the essential oil was the key ingredient to the perfumes unique aroma.