Earl Grey is the first “exotic” tea I tasted. It was April 1979 and I was sitting here…
This particular spot on St. John hasn’t changed much in the past three decades and will likely stay the same for years to come as it is inside the Virgin Islands National Park. My experience with tea, however, has changed a great deal.
Back then I was not much of a sophisticated tea drinker. It was Lipton tea bags or Nestea instant for me. But afternoon tea was, and still is, a tradition in the islands and perhaps because of the close proximity to the British Virgins the tea served was Twinings Earl Grey. (I know, most folks prefer the exotic, icy drinks popular in the Caribbean, but what can I say…I love hot tea.)
Who the heck was Earl Grey, anyway? I wasn’t the least bit curious at the time, but later learned the various legends. One tale has it that a British diplomat on a mission to China saved the life of a Mandarin and was given a recipe for this lovely tea as a thanks and a gift to then British Prime Minister, Earl Grey. He was the PM from 1830-34. Some folks say it was the Earl himself who saved the Mandarin. Others claim the tea was simply a gift after a successful diplomatic mission.
It’s funny, however, that the Chinese never sipped this particular tea themselves and there is no mention of the tea gift in the history books covering relations between the Chinese and British during this time. (It was actually a time of hostilities due to the opium trade.)
So…was it just a marketing ploy by the folks who created this scented mixture? Whatever the case, it’s still popular today and a good Earl Grey (the correct balance of bergamot to leaves — preferably with a black China tea from Yunnan) makes a very good brew. (This tea is scented with the oil from the citrus bergamot fruit, a sort of orange.)
Some excellent choices (these are tea leaves; I don’t use tea bags except as a necessary convenience when traveling):
Teavana’s Earl Grey Black Tea or the special Earl Grey Creme Black
Rishi’s organic fair trade Earl Grey made with Yunnan black tea or an interesting Earl Grey Lavender scented with lavender flowers
The Tao of Tea gets its bergamot from Sicily and it is steam distilled to make a natural essence; try the regular Earl Grey or the Blue Flower Earl Grey that also adds a taste of the beautiful blue Malva flowers that are common to the Mediterranean
** A pretty good brew can also be made with a few black tea leaves and a bunch of fresh (or a pinch of dried) orange mint from the garden. I’ve grown orange mint for years and it’s also great in many recipes. If you like pork, try this one for Cuban Pork Medallions with Cucumber Orange Mint Salsa from The Seattle Times. Most markets don’t sell orange mint, so you have to grow it on your own. It’s easy to grow in a pot or in the ground and spreads like crazy, carrying it’s sweet citrus scent throughout the garden. If you can find a cheap end-of-season sale on a plant, pick it up and enjoy the leaves inside all winter.