Today is the birthday (1764) of Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, KG PC, known as Viscount Howick between 1806 and 1807, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 22 November 1830 to 16 July 1834. A member of the Whig Party, he backed significant reform of the British government and was among the primary architects of the Reform Act 1832. His administration also saw the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. In addition to his political achievements, he has come to be associated with Earl Grey tea.
Grey was descended from a long-established Northumbrian family seated at Howick Hall, the second but eldest surviving son of General Sir Charles Grey KB (1729–1807) and his wife, Elizabeth (1743/4–1822), daughter of George Grey of Southwick, co. Durham. He had four brothers and two sisters. He was educated at Richmond School, followed by Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, acquiring a facility in Latin, and in English composition and declamation that enabled him to become one of the foremost parliamentary orators of his generation. Grey was elected to Parliament for the Northumberland constituency on 14 September 1786, aged just 22. He became a part of the Whig circle of Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and the Prince of Wales, and soon became one of the major leaders of the Whig party.
He was the youngest manager on the committee for prosecuting Warren Hastings. The Whig historian T. B. Macaulay wrote in 1841:
At an age when most of those who distinguish themselves in life are still contending for prizes and fellowships at college, he had won for himself a conspicuous place in Parliament. No advantage of fortune or connection was wanting that could set off to the height his splendid talents and his unblemished honour. At twenty-three he had been thought worthy to be ranked with the veteran statesmen who appeared as the delegates of the British Commons, at the bar of the British nobility. All who stood at that bar, save him alone, are gone, culprit, advocates, accusers. To the generation which is now in the vigour of life, he is the sole representative of a great age which has passed away. But those who, within the last ten years, have listened with delight, till the morning sun shone on the tapestries of the House of Lords, to the lofty and animated eloquence of Charles Earl Grey, are able to form some estimate of the powers of a race of men among whom he was not the foremost.
Grey was also noted for advocating Parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation. His affair with the Duchess of Devonshire, herself an active political campaigner, did him little harm although it nearly caused her to be divorced by her husband. In 1806, Grey, by then Lord Howick owing to his father’s elevation to the peerage as Earl Grey, became a part of the Ministry of All the Talents (a coalition of Foxite Whigs, Grenvillites, and Addingtonites) as First Lord of the Admiralty. Following Fox’s death later that year, Howick took over both as Foreign Secretary and as leader of the Whigs.
In Charon’s Boat (1807), James Gillray caricatured the fall from power of the Whig administration, with Howick taking the role of Charon rowing the boat. A group of naked British Whig politicians, including three Grenvilles, Sheridan, St. Vincent, Moira, Temple, Erskine, Howick, Petty, Whitbread, Sheridan, Windham,and Tomline, Bishop of Lincoln, crossing the river Styx in a boat named the Broad Bottom Packet. Sidmouth’s head emerges from the water next to the boat. The boat’s torn sail has inscription “Catholic Emancipation” and the center mast is crowned with the Prince of Wales feathers and motto “Ich Dien.” On the far side the shades of Cromwell, Charles Fox and Robespierre wave to them. Overhead, on brooms, are the Three Fates; to the left a three-headed dog. Above the boat three birds soil the boat and politicians.
The government fell from power the next year, and, after a brief period as a member of parliament for Appleby from May to July 1807, Howick went to the Lords, succeeding his father as Earl Grey. He continued in opposition for the next 23 years.
In 1830, when the Duke of Wellington resigned on the question of Parliamentary reform, the Whigs finally returned to power, with Grey as Prime Minister. His Ministry was a notable one. He oversaw the passage of the Reform Act 1832, which finally saw the reform of the House of Commons, making the election of members of parliament much fairer and representative after centuries of corruption, and the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. As the years had passed, however, Grey had become more conservative, and he was cautious about initiating more far-reaching reforms, particularly since he knew that the King (William IV) was at best only a reluctant supporter of reform. Unlike most politicians, he seems to have genuinely preferred a private life; colleagues remarked caustically that he threatened to resign at every setback. In 1834 Grey retired from public life, leaving Lord Melbourne as his successor.
Grey returned to Howick but kept a close eye on the policies of the new cabinet under Melbourne, whom he, and especially his family, regarded as a mere understudy until he began to act in ways of which they disapproved. Grey became more critical as the decade went on, being particularly inclined to see the hand of Daniel O’Connell behind the scenes and blaming Melbourne for subservience to the radicals with whom he identified the Irish patriot. He made no allowances for Melbourne’s need to keep the radicals on his side to preserve his shrinking majority in the Commons, and in particular he resented any slight on his own great achievement, the Reform Act, which he saw as a final solution of the question for the foreseeable future. He continually stressed its conservative nature. As he declared in his last great public speech, at the Grey Festival organized in his honor in Edinburgh in September 1834, its purpose was to strengthen and preserve the established constitution, to make it more acceptable to the people at large, and especially the middle classes, who had been the principal beneficiaries of the Reform Act, and to establish the principle that future changes would be gradual, “according to the increased intelligence of the people, and the necessities of the times.”
Grey spent his last years in contented, if sometimes fretful, retirement at Howick, with his books, his family, and his dogs. He became physically feeble in his last years and died quietly in his bed on 17 July 1845, forty-four years to the day since going to live at Howick. He was buried in the church there on the 26th in the presence of his family, close friends, and the laborers on his estate.
Earl Grey tea is a tea blend with a distinctive smoky flavor and aroma derived from the addition of oil extracted from the rind of the bergamot orange, a fragrant citrus fruit. Traditionally, the term “Earl Grey” has applied only to black teas that contain oil of bergamot as a flavoring.
Tea flavored with bergamot to imitate the more expensive types of Chinese tea has been known in England at least since the 1820s. In 1837 there is a record of court proceedings against Brocksop & Co. who were found to have supplied tea “artificially scented, and, drugged with bergamot in this country,” but there is no known published reference to an ‘Earl Grey’ tea before advertisements by Charlton & Co. of Jermyn Street in London in the 1880s, though ‘Grey’s Tea’ is known from the 1850s.
The Earl Grey blend, or “Earl Grey’s Mixture”, is assumed to be named after the 2nd Earl Grey, who reputedly received a gift, probably a diplomatic perquisite, of tea flavored with bergamot oil. Bergamot orange (Citrus bergamia) is a small citrus tree which blossoms during the winter and is grown commercially in Italy. It is likely a hybrid of Citrus limetta and Citrus aurantium.
According to one legend, a grateful Chinese mandarin whose son was rescued from drowning by one of Lord Grey’s men first presented the blend to the Earl in 1803. The tale appears to be apocryphal, as Lord Grey never set foot in China and the use of bergamot oil to scent tea was then unknown in China. However, this tale is subsequently told (and slightly corrected) as on the Twinings website, as “having been presented by an envoy on his return from China’”
Jacksons of Piccadilly claim they originated Earl Grey’s Tea, Lord Grey having given the recipe to Robert Jackson & Co. partner George Charlton in 1830. According to Jacksons, the original recipe has been in constant production and has never left their hands. Theirs has been based on China tea since the beginning.
According to the Grey family, the tea was specially blended by a Chinese mandarin for Lord Grey, to suit the water at Howick Hall using bergamot in particular to offset the preponderance of lime in the local water. Lady Grey used it to entertain in London as a political hostess, and it proved so popular that she was asked if it could be sold to others, which is how Twinings came to market it as a brand.
There are different varieties of a tea known as Lady Grey; the two most common kinds (Lavender Lady Grey and Citrus Lady Grey), which combine Earl Grey tea with lavender and Seville oranges, respectively.
A beverage called “London Fog” is a combination of Earl Grey, steamed milk and vanilla syrup.
There are variations available including such ingredients as jasmine, as well as various flowers. A blend with added rose petals is known as French Earl Grey. A variety called Russian Earl Grey often contains ingredients such as citrus peels and lemon grass in addition to the usual black tea and bergamot. Also, several companies make a tea called Earl Grey Green or “Earl Green” tea, combining green tea leaves rather than the traditional black tea leaves with bergamot flavoring.
A similar variation called Earl Grey White or “Earl White” tea combines white tea leaves with bergamot flavoring.
Rooibos Earl Grey is a variation using this South African herbal tea as a substitute for the conventional form made with black tea. This variation may have originated from Malaysia.
Twinings reformulated their Earl Grey tea in April 2011, claiming to have added “an extra hint of bergamot and citrus.” The overwhelmingly negative comments on their website were picked up by the press, who drew attention to the establishment of a related protest group on Facebook.
I am something of a tea aficionado (not as rabid as my son who has shelf upon shelf of tea varieties and paraphernalia). I prefer Chinese teas and I have a number of favorites such as longjing, lapsang souchong, and da hong pao. I make them as simple infusions with no additives so that I can savor the basic tea flavors. Hence, I dislike flavored teas such as Earl Grey where the bergamot oil overwhelms the tea.
While I don’t like Earl Grey as a tea, I’m all right with it as a flavoring for both sweet and savory things. Here’s a recipe for Earl Grey chocolate cake.
Image – Susie Kushner
Earl Grey Chocolate Cake
4 Earl Grey tea bags or 2 tablespoons loose Earl Grey
1 cup water
½ cup (1 stick) butter
2 cups granulated sugar
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup plain yogurt
Pre-heat the oven to 350° F/175°C.
Butter the lining of an 8-cup fluted tube pan.
Bring the water to around 185° F/85°C. It is a great mistake to brew any tea with boiling water. Too many bitter oils are released. Infuse the tea bags or tea leaves for 3-5 minutes, then strain the tea and reserve.
Beat the butter, eggs, and granulated sugar until fluffy. Blend in the chocolate. Beat in the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, yogurt, and brewed tea. This can be done by hand or with an electric mixer. Pour the batter into the cake pan.
Bake 50 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the cake comes out with a few crumbs attached. Remove from the oven and let stand 5 minutes. Turn the cake out of the pan on to a wire rack and let cool. Dust with confectioner’s sugar.
Serve in slices at tea time with a pot of unscented tea.
You can make your own version of Earl Grey by the cup or pot if you have bee balm in the garden. Bee balm (especially Monarda didyma) has high concentrations of an essential oil that is remarkably similar to bergamot, although chemically distinct. You can infuse these leaves along with black tea, or infuse them by themselves.