In Search of Earl Grey

Quinteassential traveled to Howick Hall in Northumberland to speak to the descendant of Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey – the man behind the eponymous tea blend and one time PM of UK.

When I was selling my tea at farmer’s market during 2008 to 2010, one of the many pleasures of the trade was talking to fellow tea lovers. We had conversations that ranged from tea trivial to semi-scientific on terroir. One of the surprises that I had through many chats was – a good majority of tea drinkers I encountered did not know that Earl Grey blend was named after a real person, Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey. Thanks to my mentor and teacher, Jane Pettigrew, I was put in touch with the estate of The Grey Family at Northumberland, and managed to wrangle an interview with the current descendant, Charles, 2nd Lord Howick of Glendale, to find out more about Charles Grey and his eponymous blend.

Howick Hall, northumberland, earl grey
At Howick Hall in Northumberland to meet the descendant of Earl Grey.

One weekday, I set off to meet Lord Howick, barely able to contain my excitement. Driving through the expansive moors and scenic Pennine Mountains, I finally reach Howick Hall in a little over four hours. None the worse for wear as the scenery more than made up for the time. I was first given a tour of the grounds by a keeper and visited the little church where 2nd Earl Grey is buried. Then it’s off to meet Lord Howick in the west wing who just recently arrived from Australia where he resides during winter. Lord Howick is more at ease in the gardens as a horticulturist then in front of the camera. I only have a voice recording of our interview, but I can say he is a grandfatherly figure who is unassuming, gentle in his speech with a subtle sense of humour.

The excerpted interview is condensed and edited:

He loved coming here. His colleagues in the Whig party always complained that he’s buried in his Northumberland fortress, they call it – Lord Howick on Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey

BERNADINE: When you’re out there (Australia), do you ever order Earl Grey tea?

LORD HOWICK:
Almost never. It’s too hot. At that time, it’s summer. I don’t think I drink tea much at all there. Had coffee for breakfast always. Afternoon tea is 31C in the shade.

BERNADINE:
When you’re out at restaurants, do you ever order Earl Grey?

LORD HOWICK: Sometimes. I prefer Lapsang Souchong. I like it with a squeeze of lemon. I do the same if I am brewing Earl Grey.

BERNADINE: When did you find out the Earl Grey blend is part of the family history?

LORD HOWICK: We always known the story. It’s a very simple story. At some point, the 2nd Earl Grey when he was prime minister, as one of the Whigs politicians in the early 19th century, he met a Chinese mandarin. Wouldn’t know how, where, when or anything but there was some sort of contact. He was complaining about the quality of tea in Howick because of the water, which originally comes from the spring, straight off the limestones. The Chinese mandarin offered to blend a tea to compensate for that and used a lot of bergamot to affect the taste.

BERNADINE: Wow a tea designer in the 19th century.

LORD HOWICK:
The blend was used by Lady Grey when she was entertaining in London. Everybody liked it and it became very popular. The blend was actually produced by Jacksons of Picaddily in London during that time. I don’t know who they belong to now. They asked for permission to sell it to other people, and it was sold as Earl Grey tea.

BERNADINE:
Popular as a global blend now, in hindsight isn’t that a missed opportunity to own the rights to the blend?

LORD HOWICK: In commercial terms, it was one of the greatest opportunities, but I can’t say I mind as much. If it had been commercialised, I’ve no doubt it may not have taken off to anything like this. The very fact that it was free to everybody to make whatever they wanted helped it take off.

BERNADINE: When we were looking at the legend of the Chinese mandarin, I wonder where they got the bergamot idea because it’s not grown in England?

LORD HOWICK: No, it’s a mediterranean and middle eastern herb. But China had been trading with the middle east for thousands of years, well back in the antiquity, so I think it’s perfectly possible for bergamot to reach China. So they know about it.

BERNADINE: How do you feel that the family name is linked to a tea?

LORD HOWICK: Not particularly. It’s such a staple commodity as it is. You just live with it. (Chuckling) I might feel differently if it’s commercialised and there’s huge amount of royalties coming in. I’m much more interested in Lord Grey and his political history.

BERNADINE: I don’t know much about politics but I’d like to find out more about him as a person.

LORD HOWICK: He was the leader of the Whigs, as oppose to the Torys on the other side. When he was PM from 1830 to 1834, he became a very crucial figure with the passing of Great Reform Act. The importance of that was it established in an unwritten constitution that this country always had, you could actually have quite radical political change without having either rebellion or civil war.He was one of the people, or only person, who was trusted by all sides. The Torys didn’t agree with him, but they knew he was a man of principles.

BERNADINE: Seems that he’s quite a forward, modern type of person.

LORD HOWICK: Yes, but I wouldn’t push that too far. He’s not a radical, he was certainly quite forward thinking. He believe you had to change but change slowly. I believe at one point, he made the phrase, “always be 10 minutes behind the time than 10 minutes in front of it.”

BERNADINE: I pride myself as telling stories through tea, and It really sounds like the Earl Grey captures his personality quite well. If you think about it, nobody blended with other ingredients, everyone drank theirs straight. Just this small addition of bergamot oil, it creates something familiar yet slightly different. Kind of forward thinking in those times.

LORD HOWICK: I’m surprised the Chinese had not added anything to their tea before. They are great adders in everything (chuckling).

BERNADINE: I understand when tea doesn’t taste good, they added something to make it taste good but not expressly to create a new product.

LORD HOWICK:
His real legacy is his political achievement more than tea.

After more than an hour of chatting with Lord Howick, I bid him farewell. That was in early May of this year 2017. Now it’s August, and we had our second election in United Kingdom in two years. The results, was unexpected to some. Nevertheless, there was no social upheaval as we are all on the same island. And I can’t thank Lord Earl Grey enough.

Bernadine Tay is a tea designer and founder of Quinteassential. She tells stories and relives memories through her tea designs. She is the tea curator and brand ambassador for Wedgwood, and has designed bespoke blends for luxury brands and hotels. She had won 7 Great Taste awards out of her 12 blend designs for her own tea range and is now also a tea judge.