Bergamot Oranges are very small, as are the trees they grow on, which are generally no taller than 12 feet (3.5 metres.) The oranges aren’t actually very orange — they are more yellow or yellowish-green. They are mostly grown in Southern Italy (namely Calabria), though attempts to grow them on the Ivory Coast have now proved commercially successful. Attempts in South America, Florida and California remain unsuccessful (as of 2004.)
Bergamot Oranges are never eaten raw, as they are too bitter. The peel of Bergamot is sold for use in cooking, either dried or candied. Oil is also extracted from the peel. It requires 200 pounds (90 kg) of the oranges to make 1 pound (450g) of oil. As the oil is quite valuable, the Italians applied in 2000 to have the EU designate it a PDO (“protected origin”) product. All in the name of protecting us consumers, of course — or perhaps just in case those Americans ever do get those trees going.
Bergamot Oil is an essential part of what gives Earl Grey tea its taste. In case you’re trying to remember if you’ve ever seen bits of orange peel in your tea, it’s actually the oil that is used to scent it.
Bergamot Oranges are not related in any way to Bergamot the mint.
Bergamot Oranges may grow naturally now in Calabria, as various tourist boards claim, but they certainly didn’t before: Romans didn’t discover oranges until later in their Empire, and they probably disappeared from Italy with the fall of the Empire.
Bergamot appear to have arrived in Italy, brought by Venetian traders in the 1700s, likely acquired in turn from Arab traders. The first reliable date we have is the oranges being planted for the first time in Calabria in 1750 by a man named Niccolo Parisi. Parisi was a trader himself, so he may have acquired the tree or seeds in Venice and brought them down to Calabria.
What no one seems to do is try to figure out how Bergamot Oranges got to China by the early 1800s. Many stories have someone coming across a tea (which would later be named Earl Grey Tea) in China flavoured with Bergamot Oranges in the early 1800s. The tea was introduced into England in the 1830s (the usual story is that it’s named after the Earl of Grey, 1764-1845.)
The explanation is probably that the tea in China wasn’t flavoured by Bergamot Oranges. Like Seville oranges, Bergamot is a variety of “Sour orange” (Citrus aurantium). Sour oranges have been grown in China since at least 300 BC, and it was almost certainly another variety of sour orange which the Chinese used. The Bergamot variety of sour orange wouldn’t have been used to flavour the tea until it began being blended in Europe, where the Bergamot Orange oil was available.
Literature & Lore
It is disinformation that the blossoms of the native North American herb Bergamot are used in Early Grey tea.
“Bergamot” comes from the Turkish expression “beg armudy”, meaning “Lord’s pear.”