Earl Grey tea is perhaps the most readily recognizable of all teas. What gives it away at first sniff is the bergamot, a kind of citrus likely first hybridized in Italy. Bill Holland of Forest Park’s Todd & Holland Tea Merchants told me that you can’t peel and eat bergamot fruit like, say, an orange, because it’s hard, like “a horse chestnut.”
The bergamot gives Earl Grey tea a highly aromatic, floral and perfumed character, somewhat fruity, almost sweet, which plays well against tea’s astringency. The tea can be taken solo, and it even stands up to milk and sugar, if you prefer your tea British-style.
Earl Grey tea can be made of any tea leaf, and every tea is made of leaves from the same plant, camellia sinensis. We’ve had Earl Grey teas made even of green tea, but usually Earl Grey is made of some sort of black tea, seasoned with either bergamot oil and/or the slivered rinds of the bergamot fruit.
“All flavored teas,” Holland told me, “were originally an effort to improve a mediocre tea.” But that should not turn you off to Earl Grey teas, which are classic and much beloved – I’m told it’s the only tea Queen Elizabeth will drink.
I was a big drinker in college, but only of Earl Grey tea. Instant coffee has always been abhorrent, so when I had to pull and all-nighter, I used a little coiled metal heater to bring a cup of water to an almost-boil before dropping in a bag of Twinings Earl Grey tea. That tea got me through many nights and English literature assignments.
Todd & Holland keeps an impressive collection of Earl Grey teas in stock. There’s regular, double- and triple-bergamot, as well as a blend with blue flowers – “the blue mallow blossoms bring down the intensity of the bergamot,” Holland told me – as well as Earl Grey Silk (with the blue mallow blossoms and vanilla), Earl Grey Francais (with mango, perhaps to reflect French colonial presence in the South Pacific?), and Earl Grey with Lavender.
Never much for flavored teas – I usually prefer a good basic tea, like an Assam, unadorned – I make an exception with Earl Grey, in part because it reminds me of college days.
At home, I used a Viking tea pot with a non-reactive stainless steel interior to test drive the triple bergamot Earl Grey. This relatively small tea pot has a built-in metal tea basket, which makes it somewhat easier to prepare a single-serving pot of leaf tea. Leaf tea is what they sell at Todd & Holland and what you should buy if you’re interested in a truly excellent cup. The pre-bagged tea you get in a grocery store is what we tea enthusiasts refer to as “dust and fannings,” basically busted up little bits of tea leaves. The brew time is a little longer with leaf teas, but the flavors are cleaner, deeper and less astringent.
“Earl Grey triple bergamot is good for older people,” said Holland, and he knew to whom he was talking, “because it stirs memories.” This is true. When I got home and brewed my cup, I remembered what it was like, in my dorm room at late night/very early morning, reading Moby Dick, and I also remembered what it was like to taste Earl Grey for the first time. It was a good memory.