Earl Grey

Does the iconic tea have anything to do with Grey, the Earl?

Earl Grey

Coffee in the morning, then tea in the afternoon and evening is my mantra. My preference is for a cup of Earl Grey, made from tea leaves and poured from a teapot. Earl Grey is usually drunk without milk or, if you must, with just a dash. There are variations of the tea as well: French Earl Grey contains rose petals; Russian Earl Grey uses lemongrass; and if you want a citrus overload, Lady Grey boasts the addition of Seville oranges.

The tradition of taking afternoon tea is accredited to Anna Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, in the 1840s, and so popular was it as a way of breaking the fast — and boredom — between lunch and dinner, that it was eagerly adopted by high society ladies. Queen Victoria, notorious for her sweet tooth, took to it with gusto, but took the fun out of it by requiring her ladies to wear formal attire.

There is a sense of occasion to the process of making a pot of Earl Grey. Its heady, sweet aroma makes it a perfect accompaniment to a freshly made cucumber sandwich or a piece of Victoria sponge cake. It is a quintessentially English thing to do.

Earl Grey is not a registered trademark, so any tea can be called Earl Grey as long as it contains a specific ingredient: an orange.

The bergamot orange has had a long and interesting history. The oil extracted from the rind of these oranges is what is known as bergamot, and it comes with its own distinctive scent. Bergamot is now widely grown in Italy, but it is native to the Far East, where alchemy, chemistry, and therefore, perfumery advanced significantly during the peak of the Islamic empires; in fact, the name stems from the Turkish ber amut or “prince’s pear”.

The Arab and Persian civilisations, located at the crossroads between the Far East and Europe, were if anything even better at perfumes, because they could import ingredient from whichever location the desired. The trend eventually spread westwards, where bergamot came to form the chief component of Emperor Napoleon’s favourite soap, the Brown Windsor.

One tale of bergamot in Europe begins in the city of Cologne, in what is now Germany but was once the Duchy of Westphilia. This was where perfumier Johann Maria Farina discovered a splendid new formula consisting of rosemary, lavender, and bergamot. “I have found a fragrance”, he proclaimed to his brother in a letter, “that reminds me of an Italian spring morning, of mountain daffodils and orange blossoms after the rain”.

This new perfume was a roaring success, attracting the attention of nearly all the royal houses in Europe, which is perhaps why the oldest perfume factory in existence today is the Johann Maria Farina gegenüber dem Jülichs-Platz GmbH.

In honour of his hometown, Farina gave this scent a name that is very familiar to us even today: Eau de Cologne.

Despite its success, the use of bergamot as a flavouring and scent had a bit of a bad reputation down the ages, particularly — but not exclusively — in relation to tea. Besides expensive perfumes, the substance was also being added to snuff to give it a distinctive aroma. By the early 19th century, bergamot was being added to cheap and low-quality teas to give them  the veneer of something of superior quality, which warranted a higher price.

In the absence of quality control in Britain, the adulteration of foodstuffs with additives; some of which were quite harmful like arsenic, copper and black lead, was not uncommon. Tea, a relatively expensive product, was often seen as fair game.

On occasion, a corrupt trader would go too far with this, stirring the authorities into action. For example an 1837 edition of The Bristol Mercury noted that a command had been given to a London grocer preventing him from selling his tea. “Brocksopp & Co’s Mowqua’s small-leaf gunpowder was so inferior a tea”, it lamented, “that deponents could not set any price upon it… it was artificially scented and appeared to have been drugged with bergamot in this country.”

Today, we know that too much bergamot is not a good thing, sometimes causing muscle cramps or rashes depending on whether it’s swallowed or applied. That said, when used well, it could also have therapeutic properties.

The member of the Grey family popularly associated with the tea is Charles Grey, the second Earl, who served as Prime Minister in the 1830s. Better known for abolishing slavery in the British Empire, he also removed the monopoly of the East India Company on importing tea from China. Until then, the East India Company was the only one allowed to import tea from China; Charles thus lowered the price and enhanced the popularity of the beverage.

We undoubtedly have a lot to thank him for, but did Charles Grey have any direct connection with the particular tea that still bears his name?

The story that the then Lord Grey told to The Daily Telegraph in 1994 goes something like this: it was the time of Grey’s premiership and he had sent an envoy to China. A series of events later, the envoy happened to save a young mandarin’s life. Endlessly grateful, the young boy’s father envisioned how he could ever thank Charles Grey for this. Suddenly, an idea struck him; tea! He mixed together the most special of his blends while diligently jotting down the recipe,and shipped it over to Grey. Grey was so delighted by this surprise that he got his tea merchant to immediately copy it and thus continued the tradition.

There is, however, also an alternative version of this story. It appears on the website for Howick Hall, Grey’s country manor. It claims that the tea was blended specially for his Lordship — by a Chinese mandarin, naturally — to hide the taste of lime in the water drawn from the local well. This is another interesting example of the use of bergamot to hide an unwanted taste.

The tale goes on to claim that Lady Grey used the blend when entertaining in London, thus sealing its popularity permanently. This version of events has been confirmed by tea wholesalers Jacksons of Piccadilly, who are now a part of the Twinings family.

Charming and convenient as these stories are, there are some troubling elements to them. During the 1830s China maintained a strict trade and policy, shutting its borders to foreigners. These tensions boiled over in 1839 into the First Opium War. Added to that, bergamot was not used as a flavouring for tea as it was not grown there back then.

What the Chinese did have, though, was neroli oil extracted from the flowers of the bitter orange tree, Citrus aurantium. In correspondence recently unearthed in the East India Company’s archives, it was noticed by the botanist Sir George Staunton, that in 1973 the Chinese scented their tea with this oil rather than the original bergamot. Joseph Banks, who heard this from Staunton, later experimented with various flavourings before settling on the final recipe. Bergamot, more readily available in the West, is a subspecies of neroli and, intriguingly, Banks was a friend of Grey.

Today, not all bergamot originates from the orange. The bergamot mint, a completely unrelated plant, is so named because it gives off a fragrance similar to bergamot.

To stir the pot further, from at least 1852, William Grey & Co extensively advertised their Grey’s Tea, often with an accompanying rhyme which went as follows:

If your pockets and palates you both want to please,
Buy William Grey’s finest of Teas
His, at Four Shillings, is unequale’d they say,
Then come with your money, and purchase of Grey.

Grey’s ‘Red Canister Tea Warehouse’ was based in Morpeth, only a few miles away from Grey’s seat in Howick. And while the Greys of Morpeth went out of business, their ‘Celebrated Grey Mixture Tea’ lived on, thanks to the efforts of Piccadilly-based blenders Charlton & Co.

In 1867, Charlton & Co were advertising the tea in Britain at a discounted price, from 5s 6d (5 shillings, 6 pence) to 4s 6d (4 shillings, 6 pence) a pound. By 1884, in The Morning Post, they were promoting it as ‘the celebrated tea, Earl Grey’s Mixture’, the first known usage of this name. It may be that the addition of Earl was a bit of creative copywriting to give the tea an air of respectability and to distance it from the shady practice of product adulteration of half a century earlier.

Twinings did obtain the endorsement of the sixth Earl Grey, Richard, to use the brand name: it is his signature that appears on their packets. However, other than this, we have to conclude that there is most probably no connection linking the family with the invention of this tea. The use of bergamot, for purposes nefarious or otherwise, is well evidenced earlier and independently of them and, perhaps, the brand was established with the help of the Grey family from the small town of Morpeth.

Whatever the truth may be, one of our most prestigious teas certainly has an interesting and murky history.

And as for the rather less well known Earl Grey cigarettes? That’s another story entirely…