March 31, 2012 at 03:35 #7542
So let’s talk about Earl Grey. 🙂 Where did it come from? I will say what I think I know, and maybe my errors will start an interesting conversation.
It was supposedly named after the 2nd Earl Grey, Charles Grey II, his father (Charles Grey I) receiving the Earlship in 1806 and unfortunately dying the year after. Charles Grey II remained the Earl until his death in 1845, when it passed on to his son Henry George Grey. There is a story that the Earl received the original tea as a diplomatic gift in 1830, during his first year as the Prime Minister. The Earl enjoyed it, and supposedly asked to have it copied by George Charlton, a tea-blender at 48 Charing Cross, who started offering “Earl Grey’s Mixture” for sale to the public in 1836. When George Charlton went out of business (1870s?), the recipe passed to Jackson’s of Piccadilly. By 1892, Queen Victoria had taken a liking to it, which I imagine popularized it with the rest of the UK. 🙂 It was offered it in one form or another until Jackson’s was bought out by long-time competitor Twinings in 1990 (who I imagine uses their own blend – in the 1940s it was a mix of Chinese and Indian teas).
The use of bergamot peel to flavor tea was not original; it was a trick that had been in use for several years prior, to give (relatively) less expensive teas the aroma of expensive ones. For instance, here is a description of the process from 1824:
To render Tea at 5s. a pound equal to Tea at 12s. –
The cheapest and most expensive teas are all the leaves of the same tree, at least they should be so, and if there were no sloe-leaves nor privet-leaves, they would be so. The high flavour, therefore, of some of the sorts of tea, and the want of flavour in others, must arise from the manner of preparing them, and must be in some measure artificial. It follows, that if we can discover any fine flavoured substance, and add it to the tea in a proper manner, so as to make it agree and harmonise with the original flavour, we shall be able to improve low-priced and flavourless tea, into a high priced article of fine flavour. The flavouring substance found to agree best with the original flavour of tea, is the oil of bergamot; by the proper management of which you may produce from the cheapest teas the finest flavoured bloom, hyson, gunpowder, and cowslip. There are two ways of managing the bergamot. Purchase at the perfumers some of the perfumed pieces of wood, which they call bergamot fruit. Keep one such piece in your canister, and it will flavour the tea in the same way as a Tonquin bean flavours snuff. If the canister be a small one, the flavour perhaps would be too strong; in that case you may chip the bergamot fruit in pieces, and put only a little bit among your tea. Or procure a small phial of the oil of bergamot; take some of the smallest of your tea and add it to a few drops of the oil, till you form a sort of paste, which is to be carefully mixed with the whole tea, in proportion to its quantity and the degree of flavour you like best. If you make the flavour too strong, you have always on easy remedy, namely, by adding more unflavoured tea. When it is thus improved, it is often sold at 18s. and a guinea, a pound. Cowslip tea has been as high as 32s.
This is why I suspect that if there is any truth to the “Chinese diplomatic gift” story, it is that a tea was given rather than a tea recipe. I’m not sure what kind of tea could have been copied though… One possibility is Dai Dai Hua Cha, a scented tea that uses Citrus aurantium var. daidai as its scenting agent, as Bergamot (Citrus aurantium subsp. bergamia) is a distant relative to this bitter orange species. However, Daidai tea is traditionally made using green tea… while tea called “congou” was part of the Dutch East India’s cargo as early as 1736, few of the famous styles of Congou had been developed yet. Most black tea was still made by the Souchong method, or was Wuyi Oolong in disguise (Bohea)… when prompted, many struggled to tell the difference between Bohea and Congou. 🙂 The UK Tea Council says that the traditional base tea for Earl Grey is Keemun, which is probably correct. This can’t have been the original base, however, because Keemun was not developed until 1875. So the question becomes, when did it change, and what did it change from? One possibility is “hongmuey congou” which was a named congou in the 1830s… I think that hongmuey might be hong mei (红梅)… there is a black tea known as Jiuqu Hongmei in production in Zhejiang… perhaps the same one?
And of course, perhaps putting a wet blanket on the whole thing, the teashop that occupied 48 Charing Cross in the early 1800s before George Charlton took over was “Thorpe & Grey”; I can certainly imagine a world in which an old blend named “Grey’s Mixture” is given new life by having a Prime Minister named Grey in office. 🙂
April 1, 2012 at 01:08 #7544
I am pretty sure that adding Earl Grey to fairly flavorless tea is still common practice today. Whenever I have to order a tea bag while out, I almost always ask for Earl Grey. Not because I love the stuff but because I know the bag is going to be quite awful, and the oil of bergamot makes it bearable to drink.
By the way, I had to smile at; “maybe (your) errors will start an interesting conversation.” It’s funny how errors do often get the replies flowing. If you had said “Earl Grey was originally a brand of hair dye for men” then no doubt, comments would come flying. However your arguments sound quite convincing to me. Where did you come across the description of the process dated 1824?
“There is a story that the Earl received the original tea as a diplomatic gift in 1830” to me means they received Earl Grey tea, not the recipe and that they wanted the tea copied – as in they wanted someone to blend tea to taste like EG. Is that what you’re saying too? I wasn’t quite sure. Perhaps the oil of bergamot was used to mask tea that didn’t do well after months at sea. The scent of mold in humid conditions could be cleverly disguised with the fragrance of a citrus fruit. I just made that up but it actually sounds quite convincing.
April 1, 2012 at 05:26 #7545
The quote was from the June 22 edition of an English magazine called The Kaleidoscope. I’m afraid I don’t know much about it, as the tip is not given an author. A copy is available on Google Books, however.
“There is a story that the Earl received the original tea as a diplomatic gift in 1830″ to me means they received Earl Grey tea, not the recipe and that they wanted the tea copied – as in they wanted someone to blend tea to taste like EG. Is that what you’re saying too? I wasn’t quite sure.
That’s the idea. Of course, there are certainly a few holes in the story. For one, China and England had quite turbulent relations in the 1830s; China was very isolationist at the time, and officially not interested in British products other than silver; British traders of course were gleefully exploiting the Chinese populace’s unofficial interest in opium to help even out the trade imbalance, which would eventually lead to the Opium Wars. This seems like a strange backdrop for exchanging gifts.
Simply speculation, but it seems more likely to me that a gift of that sort might have been from the East India Company itself. In 1830 they still had a government-protected monopoly over the lucrative Chinese tea trade, but this was becoming increasingly unpopular… I have no evidence, but I can certainly imagine a world where they would want to get off to a nice start with the new Prime Minister by presenting a gift of tea. 🙂 Of course, the Earl abolished their tea trade monopoly with the Charter Act of 1833, so maybe not. 😉
April 26, 2012 at 02:36 #7721
while tea called “congou” was part of the Dutch East India’s cargo as early as 1736, few of the famous styles of Congou had been developed yet. Most black tea was still made by the Souchong method, or was Wuyi Oolong in disguise (Bohea)… when prompted, many struggled to tell the difference between Bohea and Congou. The UK Tea Council says that the traditional base tea for Earl Grey is Keemun, which is probably correct. This can’t have been the original base, however, because Keemun was not developed until 1875. So the question becomes, when did it change, and what did it change from? One possibility is “hongmuey congou” which was a named congou in the 1830s… I think that hongmuey might be hong mei (红梅)… there is a black tea known as Jiuqu Hongmei in production in Zhejiang… perhaps the same one?
I’m not so confident now that congou was a rarity… In 1844, it looks like it was by far the dominant form of black tea in Great Britain. (Although none of it was exported to the United States…) While I suppose it could have had a dramatic growth between 1830 and 1844, I’m not sure why that would be, unless congou was a style of black tea that the East India Company refused to focus on during its monopoly days… I’ll see if I can find some more information.
It looks like that’s actually exactly what happened.
From March 1834 to September 1834 (I believe the last shipment under East India Company control), 1,696,000 pounds of congou were imported to Great Britain, making it the most popular tea available (at what I imagine was a staggering price). From October of 1834 to September of 1835, the amount of congou imported surged to 22,728,666 pounds! (Or maybe all the tea smugglers now no longer needed to hide their imports?) Partially related, it also states that hongmuey congou was unknown in Great Britain until 1835… so it couldn’t have been the original Earl Grey base.
April 26, 2012 at 11:59 #7722
… or they could have made a typo, omitting a zero. This House of Commons report suggests that that is more likely the case (as well as providing a fascinating series of interviews with 1830s tea brokers asking them about the state of the industry and the tastes of their customers)..
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