If curiosity killed the cat, I must be on my fourteenth life right about now, especially when it comes to seeking out the histories of beverage. The more conflict in history, the more intrigued I am with it. It seems than any truly classic beverage has a bit of a conflict of origin behind it, and the seemingly simple Earl Grey tea is no different.
For those of you who are not familiar with this tea, traditional Earl Grey is a strong black tea infused with the essence of bergamot oil. Bergamot oil is derived from the rind of the very distinctive Italian Bergamot orange, which is a cross between the pear lemon and Seville orange. To drink this tea is to know a heady, uplifting tea experience. In fact, there have been studies on the health benefits of bergamot oil, which include its use in fighting depression and anxiety (just the smell alone is a natural high to the senses), and it has also been used in many pain relief studies. There are quite a few variations to this tea, such as Lady Earl Grey (which often infuses lemon and at times lavender), as well as green Earl Grey and even Earl Grey rooibos. However you choose to drink this brew, it is bound to be a very flavorful and unique experience. Even the famous Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek kept it simple and succinct with his famed quote “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” You just can’t go wrong with that kind of a classic.
Earl Grey tea is named after an actual historical human, Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey, also known as Viscount Howick. He was the British Prime Minister between 1830 and 1834, and was quite notable in his significant backing of political reform in Britain, notably with the passing of the Reform Act of 1832, as well as the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. For those of us who are not entirely history buffs, this guy was kind of a big deal in the political realm.
How Lord Grey managed to cross over into the tea realm is where the myth and legend seems to arise. In one legend, Lord Grey was presented the tea as a gift by a grateful Chinese Mandarin in 1803, because the Mandarin’s son was saved from drowning by one of the Earl’s men. However, not only had Lord Grey never set foot in China, but using bergamot essence to scent tea was not a practice in China at that time. So although it is a wonderfully romantic tale, it is pure fiction.
There is also another tale, one of pure happenstance, that during Lord Grey’s shipment of black tea and bergamot oranges, the tea absorbed the scent of the oranges, and thusly, the tea resulted from a happy accident. This is not a very widely acknowledged story, but I think it was plausible enough to be included in the theories. After all, some of the best things we love to consume (such as chocolate chip cookies and Corn Flakes) were accidental inventions.
If you ask the Grey family, though, they will likely tell you that the tea was blended by a Chinese mandarin especially for Lord Grey, in order to counterbalance the water of Howick Hall in Northumberland, which tasted heavily of lime. The bergamot offset the stringent flavor in the water, and because Lady Grey used it so frequently in London during her political hostess events, it soared in popularity rather quickly. So quickly, in fact, that both Twinings of London and Jacksons of Piccadilly teahouse took hold of developing and marketing this now-classic Earl Grey tea.
Whichever story that you choose to believe as more factual is up to you, but it is a definite fact that Earl Grey is one of the more popularly consumed teas worldwide. But why stop at just using it in your favorite cup of brew? I have recently been able to experience Earl Grey in a few extraordinary forms. In the past month, Liquid Planet featured Earl Grey in a tea latte in honor of Missoula’s Aging Services. If you didn’t get the chance to try it, I encourage you to do so. It was the perfect melding of rich tea with honey and vanilla. Absolutely delicious! I have had Earl Grey tea infused into cookies, “marTEAnis” made with Earl Grey infused gin, Earl Grey chocolate and even Earl Grey frosted cupcakes. Yes, I said it- Earl Grey frosted cupcakes. I was so delighted with them that I feel that the recipe merits sharing with Earl Grey’s history here. No, this isn’t your grand-mum’s cup of tea; it’s an even better bite into summer. You can find both the lavender and Earl Grey tea down at Liquid Planet (and try a tea latte while you’re there!)
Lavender Cupcakes with Earl Grey Infused Frosting
(Yields 12 cupcakes)
For the cupcakes:
- 1 stick butter, softened
- 1 cup white sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 teaspoon red food coloring
- 1 teaspoon blue food coloring
- 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 2-1/2 tablespoons dried lavender, chopped
- About 2/3 cup light cream
For the frosting:
- 1 stick butter, softened
- About 3 cups powdered sugar
- 2 Earl Grey tea bags (about .1 ounce of loose leaf tea)
- 4 tablespoons boiling water
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a cupcake tin with liners and set aside. Meanwhile, in a large metal mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar with an electric stand mixer until combined.
Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until creamy. Stir in the food coloring and mix until you get a deep purple. Using a spoon, stir in the flour, baking powder and chopped lavender. Mix until batter is fully combined. Stir in cream. Fill each cupcake liner 2/3 full with batter and bake for about 12-14 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out dry. Meanwhile, pour the boiling water over the tea bags and let steep about 10 minutes.
To prepare the frosting, beat the butter and 2 cups powdered sugar together until a thick, creamy frosting forms. Add the liquid tea to the frosting and add remaining 1 cup powdered sugar. Beat until an ivory colored frosting forms. Frost the cupcakes and sprinkle dry tea leaves on the tops. Enjoy your bites of heaven!
However you enjoy your Earl Grey tea this summer, hot or iced, or infused into treats, with friends or happy solitude, I hope it is a marvelously delicious experience.