The long and scenic road to Earl Grey

Wednesday, February 17, 2016 5 Permalink 1


Because of British friend T’s sage advice months ago on Twinings as the only decent brand for tea in these parts, I have been working my way ever since through all the Twinings flavors available at our supermarket.

Having exhausted the usual varieties several times over, I finally this week reached the last type in stock, on the back top shelf, the rather fringy “Russian Earl Grey.”

I immediately wanted to know what made it particularly “Russian.” Well, apparently it’s just the goluboy blue of the tin and some overweening marketing, but dig-dig a little on the internet, and down a few rabbit holes, and there’s a whole lot more to learn about things I didn’t even know I didn’t know.

fragrant-flowers-of-monarda-bee-balm All this time, for decades and with confidence, I’ve been thinking that Earl Grey tea was infused with common “bergamot,” or bee balm (monarda, in the mint family), but the bergamot that flavors Earl Grey tea, Russian or otherwise, is not derived from the monarda flowering plant in our yards which we call bergamot in English.

The Earl Grey bergamot is instead the oil of a dull greenish citrus from Italy – Bergamo, Italy, in fact, which is a fabulous city, the most romantic place I’ve ever been, whose name I took at the time as only coincidentally sounding like the monarda flower. But no, it’s on purpose: The New-World flower just happened to smell vaguely like the citrus fruit from Bergamo, which had become well-known only because of the tea.

Citrus_bergamia_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-184It’s been confusion ever since, with most any superficial internet search turning up DIY ways to make common black tea into “Earl Grey” using bee balm from the garden. (Actually, Native Americans did drink herbal “Oswego” tea made from actual bee balm, but it’s something else entirely.)


The whole idea to put the bergamot citrus oil in the tea was originally an illegal attempt by merchants to disguise inferior common tea already imported into Europe as a fancier more perfumed and expensive variety from China, and passing it off on ingénus for fat profits through the addition of some exotic-tasting but rather more common flavorings. Bergamot citrus had relatively no value.

148857-004-329D867FSo at first it was pure fraud, we know from the record of early bergamot prosecutions, and (draw your own conclusions) then surprisingly quickly became associated with upper-class tea-drinkers, helped along by branding with the royal-sounding name of Prime Minister Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, who never set foot in China and, like any good politician, claimed he had nothing to do with this tea swindle. That is, until it became fashionable, and then his heirs started making up colorful stories about secret gift boxes from Chinese emissaries, or rescued cargo from sinking ships, etc. 

Today those companies who first denied the charges of “drugging” their tea with bergamot oils fight over who did it first and who can claim the original recipe.


Finally, if that story is not muddled enough, the French call bee balm la monarde, after monarda, avoiding outright all confusion with any citrus, but what the French call une bergamote in the village fresh markets is actually more like a sweet Meyer lemon, originating in North Africa.

And that is not to be confused in those same markets with la bergamote esperen, a cultivated pear of no relation whatsoever to anything, except that the ancient root word for the name of Bergamo, Italy, is apparently “a pear fit for a Lord,” through corrupted Turkish.

And with Turkey we’ve made it at least back toward Russia (remember Russia?) as far as the Black Sea, and should stop while we are ahead.

There is indeed something new to learn every day. Only now we really do need a cup of soothing tea.

I can certainly appreciate how they came upon the name “Twinings.” I might even go so far as “Hopelessly Tangled.”