Friday, April 8, 2011


This week I was asked to explain a bergamot in one paragraph or less. Without the aid of reference books or the safety net of double-checking facts, I answered, but here is the response I would have given if I hadn’t been restricted to a paragraph and my memory.

A bergamot is a small bitter orange, the fruit is pear shaped that is nearly impossible to grow, utterly inedible and if it weren’t for the one half of one percent of essential citrus oil found in its skin, the variety would either be extinct, a curiosity or a backyard ornamental. It is this .005 of oil that scents both tea and people that keeps the plant thriving and well tended by humans.

Its discovery, can be credited it to Christopher Columbus, who apparently brought the variety to Spain from the Canary Islands or the West Indies. From there it seems to have jumped to the Italian peninsula from the town of Berga, located outside of Barcelona. Or perhaps the tree landed in Italy, arriving from the opposite direction – Bergamotta, an Italianization of the Turkish beg-armudi, or the lord’s pear. Or maybe the word has something to do with the French bergamotte, which is a variety of pear that predates a written record of the orange by a century and a half. 

Portrait of an Orange in green
While the mystery of how the bergamot orange made its way to Europe is convoluted, the use of its oil according to former chemist and citrus book writing, Pierre Laszlo, is usually attributed to “monks, pirates or wise Asians”.  Two things –

1)    This implies that the fruit was purposefully cultivated, yet no one had thought to press oranges for their oil.
2)    Monks & wise Asians, sure. But Pirates? “Darg, swab the deck with some bergamot you scallywags so this ship smells as good as it is evil.”

As to the monk origin story, in the mid to late 17th century, Giovanni Feminis learned of the oil from a monastery and began mixing and selling, ‘wonder water’ – a mixture of the oils of bergamot, lavender and rosemary. Although Feminis was a Piedmontese, Europe’s borders and territories looked different in his lifetime and he sold this elixir from his base of operations in Cologne. A wise Asian, a nameless Chinese mandarin showed Charles Grey future Prime Minister of England, how to add bergamot to tea leaves to make Earl Grey tea, although I don’t think it was called that from the get go.

Bergamot is also the name given to a subset of herbs used in N. America. Known better as “Mexican oregano”, this family of herbs has nothing to do with flavoring tea or people and might be known better as bees balm.

A hectare of the trees, 2.4 acres or 1000 x 1000 meter plot of land, can bring in a tidy sum of $20,000 to 30,000. Shame the trees are picky about where they grow and thrive, they are only grown commercially in Calabria, Italy’s toe, and Sierra Leone. Because my rudimentary grasp of math and economies tells me there is 5000 bucks waiting to be made on my 1/4 hectare.   

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