Posted by: Bystander PJ24 JUN 2014
As a change from my usual supermarket blend, I enjoy an occasional cup of Earl Grey tea, with its distinctive flavour provided by the addition of bergamot oil. This oil is obtained from the rind of the bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia), a small winter-flowering citrus tree. Originating in the Far East, and now cultivated mainly in Italy, it is believed to be a hybrid of sweet lemon (Citrus limetta) and bitter orange (Citrus aurantium).
Bergamot oil allegedly has a range of therapeutic properties. Various dodgy websites describe it as analgesic, antibiotic, antidepressant, antiseptic, antispasmodic, calmative, cicatrisant, deodorant, digestive, febrifuge, stomachic, vermifuge and vulnerary — and much more. But there is no evidence to support any of these assertions.
And there is also no evidence to support the tea suppliers’ marketing ploy claiming that Earl Grey tea is derived from an aristocratic recipe linked to the UK’s prime minister from 1830 to 1834. There is no known reference to a Grey blend before the 1880s and no recorded use of the term Earl Grey before 1929.
According to one myth, in 1803 Earl Grey received a gift of tea flavoured with bergamot oil from a grateful Chinese mandarin whose son had been rescued from drowning by one of Grey’s men. But Earl Grey never set foot in China, and the use of bergamot oil to scent tea was then unknown in the Far East.
Grey’s descendants have their own story. They claim that the tea was blended by a Chinese mandarin to suit the water at the family seat in Northumberland. The oil was supposedly added to offset lime in the local water.
What nobody acknowledges is that bergamot oil was first used some 200 years ago as a cheap adulterant to make coarse tea taste more like expensive Chinese tea. In 1837 court proceedings were taken against a company that supplied inferior gunpowder tea “artificially scented … and drugged with bergamot”.