Earl Grey tea is a black tea with a distinctive taste and aroma that I find very appealing. The flavor comes from oil of bergamot. This is taken from the peel of bergamot oranges, or bergamots. These sour citrus fruits are grown in several countries, but are most abundant in the region of Calabria in southern Italy. Oil of bergamot is used to flavor desserts, confectionery and liqueurs as well as beverages. It also supplies a pleasant scent to perfumes and lotions and is used in aromatherapy.
The small quantities of bergamot oil used in drinks and foods are safe-and delicious-but the oil can only be safe when applicable to the skin because it makes skin photosensitive. This means that ultraviolet radiation in sunlight is most likely to damage skin cells. Some people have developed blisters, rashes, and increased pigmentation after exposure to concentrated bergamot oil and ultraviolet light, and the oil may increase the likelihood of skin cancer. One chemical in bergamot oil that induces photosensitivity is bergapten. However, other chemicals may participate as well.
The word ‘bergamot’ is also served to refer to herbs in the mint family. They are very different plants from the bergamot orange. However, their leaves do have a flavor that is redolent of oil of bergamot.
Earl Grey tea is named after Earl Charles Grey, who was prime minister of Britain from 1830 to 1834. There are several stories that attempt to describe how the Earl was related to the tea. One of the most fanciful is that the Earl played a part in saving a Chinese mandarin’s son from drowning. The grateful father created the tea as a gift for the Earl. Another story says that Earl Grey’s family asked a Chinese mandarin to create a tea that would neutralize the lime found in the water around their home. However, it’s most likely that applying the prime minister’s name to the tea was merely a way to honor him.
Thought Provoking Discussion on Bergamot
Lady Grey tea is named after Mary Elizabeth Grey, the wife of Charles Grey. This tea contains oil of bergamot, lemon peel and orange peel, as well as cornflower or lavender. These are both blue in color. The flowers are sometimes omitted from the tea. There are other non-traditional varieties of Earl Grey tea available in stores today. Sometimes oil of bergamot is in addition to green tea instead of black tea. Jasmine may be added as a flavor.
Bergamot juice has a sour fruit taste. It tastes less sour than a lemon but more bitter than grapefruit. It’s distinctive aroma is used in Earl Grey tea. Bergamot isn’t grown for consumption, but instead for its essential oil. One hundred bergamot oranges will yield about three ounces of oil. Bergamot oil has a thin consistency.
The bergamot orange plant grows as a small to medium sized tree and produces its fruit in winter. The leaves are ovate with pointed tips. The aromatic fruits are the size of edible oranges and have the yellow color of a lemon when they are ripe. They likewise have a pale yellow flesh. Most are slightly pear-shaped, owing to a small ‘neck’.
The plant is believed to have designed as a hybrid between a sour orange and another citrus fruit, probably a lemon or a lime. The first description of bergamots comes from the early eighteenth century. There are two versions of the bergamot’s scientific name. Some researchers wish to use the name Citrus bergamia, while others call the plant Citrus aurantium (the same scientific name as bitter orange) and put the plant in the subspecies bergamia. Bergamot oranges are used to produce oil of bergamot and a marmalade. However, they are not eaten as fruit or used to make fruit juice-they are far too sour and bitter.
Calabria is the most popular area for bergamot oil production, since the bergamot trees there consistently produce fruits containing a high-quality oil. Calabria is the region that forms the ‘toe’ of Italy. Bergamot trees grow mainly near the coastline. Catanzaro is the capital of the region.
CAUTION! Skin treated with bergamot oil must be maintained out of the sun, due to possible photosensitivity. Bergamot contains a constituent called bergaptene, that increases the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. Most of the sensitizing bergatene has been distilled out of bergamot essential oil. However, some traces may remain. Bergamot BF means ‘bergatene free’. Bergamot essential oil is safe to use but use simple precautions. For example, if you apply lotion to your skin, with bergamot oil, avoid excessive sunlight. If you take a bath, with bergamot oil, take it at night in place of the morning to avoid daytime sunlight to skin.
There have been claims that oil of bergamot has many health benefits, including helping to treat psoriasis and vitiligo, treating fungal disease on the skin, killing insect pests such as lice, killing bacteria, controlling anxiety and relieving depression when used in aromatherapy, aiding digestion and relieving fever and pain. There is not much-or sometimes any-scientifically acceptable evidence to substantiate most of these claims. The oil does seem to be helpful for certain skin diseases. However, even if it does cure a skin problem there is always the danger that it will establish a more serious problem than it solves.
Skin Problems: Use of bergamot oil for skin problems is highly popular. It is extensively used in creams, soaps, sunscreen lotions, and other skin care products. If you wish to use it for acne, then opt for a facial steam using the oil. Take some hot water in a pan, say a few drops of oil in it and steam your face with it. The oil will extract the bacteria from the skin, the source of acne and prevent further acne breakout. When you use bergamot oil for allergies, it can reduce itching. Other problems like psoriasis, eczema, cold sores, cuts, cracked heels, etc. can be treated by the application of the oil locally. You should always dilute the oil with vegetable oil before you apply it directly over the skin.
Bergamot oil is composed of a complex mixture of chemicals. In addition to bergapten it contains a substance called bergamottin. This chemical is also found in grapefruit juice and is why the juice needs to be avoided by people taking certain medications. Bergamottin inhibits an enzyme that breaks down the medications in the body. This can cause a medicine to remain in the body for more than normal and perhaps reach a dangerous level if more doses are taken.
Bergamot oil also contains chemicals which may help to reduce the blood cholesterol level. However, lots more research should be made to see if this effect is real.
Perhaps in the future we will discover some wonderful-and safe-medical uses for oil of bergamot. Until then, we can at least enjoy its lovely taste and aroma.