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Earl Grey sounds like the name of an Appalachian stock-car driver, but the tea is so-called after an Englishman whose given name was Charles, actually, and who was the second Grey to bear the ancient Anglo-Saxon title of earl, or count.  Charles Earl Grey was a humane and energetic man who became Prime Minister for a time under William IV (ruled 1830-1837).  The origin of his tea is a mystery.  The least likely story claims the earl received the recipe from a mandarin while serving as a diplomat in China.  This is not all that’s disputed: Twinings and Jacksons of Piccadilly contended for generations over which firm had rightful claim to the original Earl Grey formula.  The Hon. Georgina Stonor, whose family bought Jacksons in 1931 from the descendants of the founder, has written: “This (secret recipe) was entrusted by Lord Grey to George Charlton in 1830 – who was a partner of Rob’t. Jackson & Co…. Jacksons remain sole proprietors of this original formula which remains unaltered today….”  The point became moot in 1990 when Jacksons was acquired by Twinings.  Earl Grey has long been Twinings’ best-seller, of course, and the Hon. Samuel H.G. Twining estimates present sales to approach fifteen tons per day worldwide.

What makes this tea so special – regardless of the kind of tea used – is the oil of bergamot that is added.  This may be natural, nature identical or synthetic.  Which of these and in what amount it is used determines the intensity of the scent, which varies widely from brand to brand.  Bergamot is unknown in China and has nothing to do with the town of Bergamo in northern Italy, by the way.  It is a Turkish name given to a pear-shaped fruit (Citrus bergamia) long grown around the Mediterranean for the oil which can be pressed out of its rind and used in perfumery.  The question has always been: how did it get into the Earl’s tea?  My Australian colleague Ian Bersten would appear to have finally figured out the answer.  Over the centuries of the Jewish diaspora, bergamot came into use as the etrog, a citrus fruit used ritually in the Jewish Succoth festival, which Jews traditionally obtained from the Greek island of Corfu.  From the Napoleonic wars until 1848, Corfu served as the Mediterranean base for the British Royal Navy.  Britain’s tea-addicted naval officers were thus stationed in the world’s principal bergamot market throughout Earl Grey’s entire career in London, less than a month’s sail away.  Obviously he liked bergamot-enhanced tea enough to be remembered for starting the fashion.  (Only Sicily grows bergamot commercially today, I believe.)

Read next: More on Earl Grey and Other Famous Names

Photo “Wakehurst Manor House, Salve Regina University” has no known copyright restrictions, is from the Cornell University Library, and is being posted unaltered (source)