Earl Grey tea is very much an acquired taste. There was a time when I used to drink it quite regularly but during the years I was travelling it was not always easy to obtain and by the time I came back to it I’d lost the taste for it! For many years at school and on into college I had an old Twining’s Earl Grey tin, containing that aromatic scent that seemed to last for ever, that served as a pencil case!
But I digress! Just who is this enigmatic Earl Grey?
The Earl Grey blend is named after Charles, Earl Grey, the 2nd of that title. He was in many ways a singular man. Born on 13th March 1764 he was educated at Winchester and King’s College, Cambridge, after which he toured Europe extensively.
His father, General Charles Grey, was one of Britain most important military commanders who was to be later granted the titles Viscount Howick and Earl Grey which meant that his son’s was to be a life of wealth and privilege. Charles Grey entered politics at the age of twenty-two, becoming the Member of Parliament for Northumberland in 1786. A long and illustrious career over the next fifty years saw him finally reach the position of Prime Minister. Under his tenure he finally got the Parliamentary Reform Bill of 1832 passed. It was this bill that was to allow for the passing of a further series of reforming measures which included an act for the abolition of slavery in the colonies, the 1833 Factory Act and the 1834 Poor Law. It is those reforms which have led to the current universal suffrage we all currently enjoy in the western world today.
But what on earth has that got to do with tea?
Well, it was he who gave his illustrious name to the black China tea flavoured with Bergamot oil we drink today. (Bergamot orange citrus bergamia is a small, winter blossoming citrus tree grown in Italy)
There are a number of stories about how the tea was introduced. The first is that a grateful Chinese mandarin whose son was rescued from drowning by one of Lord Grey’s men first presented the blend to the Earl in 1803. The tale appears to be apocryphal however, as Lord Grey never set foot in China and the use of bergamot oil to scent tea was then unknown in China!
Jackson’s of Piccadilly claim that Lord Grey himself gave the recipe to Robert Jackson & Co. in 1830. According to Jackson’s, the original recipe has been in constant production and has never left their hands. Theirs has been based on black China tea since the beginning.
However, according to the Grey family themselves, the tea was specially blended by a Chinese mandarin for Lord Grey, to suit the water at Howick Hall, the family seat in Northumberland. Bergamot was used in particular to offset the strong presence of lime in the local water. Lady Grey in turn used it to entertain in her role as a political hostess.
Due to this it became so popular that she was asked if it could be distributed more widely, which is how Twinings came to market it as a brand.
There are different varieties of a tea known as Lady Grey though the two most common varieties are Lavender Lady Grey and Citrus (Seville Orange) Lady Grey.
A case of ‘pay your money and make your choice’ I suppose!