If memory serves right there’s only one major type of tea that’s named for a person and that would be Earl Grey, a variety that’s most often made by flavoring black tea with the aromatic oil from the peel of a citrus fruit called bergamot. Which makes for a very aromatic product indeed, and it’s certainly not for everyone – present company included – but it is nonetheless a very popular type of tea.
So how did it come to pass that a type of tea came to be named after a nineteenth century British prime minister? Well, the exact story seems to vary in the telling and this is not the time or place to revisit that issue, but suffice to say that it’s the Earl who’s typically given credit – rightly or not – for having a part in popularizing this tea.
Not so long ago, over at the Oxford English Dictionary, a whopping tome that in its entirety weighs more than many adult human beings, some of the crew began taking a look into the origins of the term Earl Grey. The earliest reference they found to Earl Grey tea was less than a century old, dating to almost a century after Grey’s death, though there was a less specific reference from about thirty years earlier.
All of which motivated the powers that be at the OxfordWords blog to invite the public to see how much further back they could trace the term. Their responses are chronicled here. Among the highlights, an advertisement from 1928 in which the company Robert Jackson’s of Piccadilly claim that they sold a concoction called Earl Grey’s mixture as far back as 1836.
I thought it might be interesting to trace the usage of bergamot as a flavoring and so I proceeded to give it a whirl. According to a 1836 volume on trade with China and Asia, the usage of bergamot as a flavoring for tea was already apparently known among “dealers and curious inquirers.” The author claimed that bergamot was one of the best substances that could be used for flavoring tea and offered a few ways to do so.
One of the earliest references I found to bergamot-flavored tea is in an 1824 mention that’s likely one referenced (though not by name) in the aforementioned blog entry. It comes from a magazine called The Kaleidoscope and as I read it more closely I realized that it was strikingly similar to the one just discussed in the previous paragraph. So much for copyright enforcement in the early nineteenth century.
None of which leads us to much in the way of conclusions about the origins of Earl Grey tea or the term itself. But perhaps one day someone with a more scholarly bent will come along and unravel the whole mess for us.
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