Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Taste of Bergamot

While travelling on scented adventures across the globe I distinctly recall the uplifting properties that a rind of bergamot tucked in my pocket for difficult moments imparted on my nausated self. A brief whiff of its aromatherapeutic properties was my lucky charm to aliviate the stress of traveling and make me focus. It was only much later I learned that it was the traveller of travellers, Christopher Columbus, who first brought the tree to the Caribbean, where it was popularly used in voodoo rituals to protect against misfortune and that it's still used in in hoodoo rootwork, to control or command individuals!

Antonio Familiari, an 80-year-old former school teacher who tends bergamot groves off Calabria's coast in Italy is definite on the subject:"The bergamot is an intelligent creature. Its arrival in Calabria is shrouded in mystery, and even though it grows elsewhere, only in this area does it give us the essential oil", while his nails claw on a bergamot releasing the little stream of droplets that posses a soft orange undertone under the lemon sharpness. Ezio Pizzi, a 62-year-old former lawyer who returned to his family's bergamot plot after his father died a decade ago is equally enthralled by the fruit: "When I think about the possibilities for bergamot fruit, I get goosebumps." On the outskirts of Reggio di Calabria, Francesco Crispo, director of the state-founded Consortium of Bergamot Growers, has a plan for a 1,500-square metre, seven million-euro institute of perfumery.
But apart from the established role of bergamot in perfumery, is there some way of utilizing this heavenly scent into something that combines the aromatherapeutic with the gluttony? As in food and drink?

The stimulating and pleasantly refined aroma of bergamot has always been a companion in my black tea, in the form of beloved Earl Grey, possibly the best-known incarnation for most people. Its distinctive flavour and aroma derives from the addition of oil extracted from the rind of the bergamot orange; the name on the other hand derives from the 2nd Earl of Grey, British Prime Minister (1830-1834) and author of the Reform Bill of 1832, who reputedly received the aromatized tea and the recipe as a diplomatic gift by a Chinese nobleman who thus thanked him for saving his life. History proves otherwise, but that shouldn't deter you from enjoying a full cup nevertheless! Twinings, one of the loose leaves black tea brands I buy out of tradition, still has the emblem of the Earl on their nostalgic, metallic canisters. Their newest addition Lady Grey is a little pale for my tastes, but you might like it. Fortnum & Mason has a superior Earl Grey blend in their loose leaves tins and is a purchase that won't break the bank. Clearly the many drinkers of Earl Grey have been enjoying this rich, elegant richness above all else and one of the loveliest blends you can try is Adagio Earl Grey Bravo (or Aristocrate), while I also like the balanced approach of Upton Teas Earl Grey Ceylon Select. Perhaps the best novel idea I can give you is to actually ice the tea and drink it for refreshment in the summer: much more invigorating and satisfying than plain black tea with lemon!

Yet bergamot has other uses in flavourful incarnations, even though the fruit is inedible, prompting the owner of this small garden on Zante island to proclaim on this funny placard on his midget trees "they're bergamots, not lemons", to deter poachers from cutting off the fruit to use in their kitchen.

One of the loveliest and easiest ideas is to aromatize a white liquor with the washed, peeled rind. Just peel the fruit, remove the white underside, cut in small rolls and press them inside the neck of a bottle of alcholic drink. Leave them be for a couple of weeks and you will see. The idea is not drastically creative, as Triple Sec has been using citrus essences on a base of brandy distillation to act as a digestif for decades. But it's good to expand. The idea works well with Italian Grappa as well as Vino Greco and I have personally used it with good results in light white rum and local ρακί/raki. The resulting potion can be used in cocktails, imparting a delicately bitter fruity flavour.

The most traditional and devilishly tempting proposition of them all however is the Greek Bergamot spoonful treat: a single spoonful of candied fruit dessert that is served on very small crystal plates and chased down with an icy cold glass of water. The flavour is so concentrated and intense that you won't need another one. And although it's so full of sugar it has no fat whatsoever, rending it a very healthy dessert. You can buy them ready-made, but they're breezily easy to make, so here is a handed-down recipe.

Recipe for Bergamot Spoonful Sweet
You will need:

7 fresh bergamots
white sugar, as much in weight as the bergamots
juice of 1 lemon
1 and 1/2 cup of water for the final boil
juice of 1/2 lemon for the final boil
clean, boiled jar with tight-fitting lid

1. Wash the bergamots, wipe and using a kitchen scrub pad scrub until outer becomes bright yellow.
2. Cut a little off the top and the bottom and score with a sharp knife into three or four parts. With the tip of the knife, remove the skin and throw away the inner part. Remove as much white pith from the bergamot peels as possible, because it's very bitter.
3.Pick the rolls of rind and roll them securing them with the toothpicks. Place them in a large saucepan and cover them in water.
4. Bring to boiling point for 2 – 3 minutes. Remove the water and substitute with fresh. Repeath Step 4 for 3-4 times. This can be done on consecutive days or on the same day to remove some of the bitterness. The more diaphanous the water becomes, the less bitter it has got.
5.On the last boiling procedure empty hot water, add fresh cold water and the juice of 1 lemon. Put them again to boil for 10 minutes. Remove from stove and leave until the water cools. Drain them and put them on the pot again.
6.Now add the sugar and the water. Leave them for half an hour and then boil. Lower heat to medium for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and leave for a while.
Bring the bergamots again to a boil, simmer for about an hour, or until the liquid becomes clear and thick (You'll know it's ready when it forms "set" droplets that leave the spoon reluctantly when dropped). Finally add the other lemon juice, stir and leave to cool completely.
7. Place the fruit in clean jars with a lid, close tightly and place them upside down for a couple of minutes. You can keep them in a cupboard for a year.

Related reading on PerfumeShrine: the Bergamot Series, Aromatic Cuisine (scented escapades in the kitchen)

Photos copyright by PerfumeShrine and via Gayot.com


  1. I remember when I was younger I used to always drink Earl Grey, but it has been awhile since I had a really good Earl Grey. But my favorite thing for it is creating a tisane of it with thyme and honey and trust me it will take away an upset stomach.

  2. What a lovely post. I am particularly intersted in the connections to Hoodoo.

    But--dear Helg--what are you thinking, recommending this dangerous fruit to your poor, defenseless readers? Imagine the rashes! The lawsuits! Horrors!


  3. Bergamot, my fave!! Love this post, in fact I can smell bergamot as I read it. Thank you for the Bergamot Spoonful Treat, I definitely want to try this out. Now....where to get some fresh bergamots in Los Angeles, hmmmm?

  4. I have found that mint makes a great addition to iced Earl Grey tea. ( Here in the South we drink iced tea by the gallon.) I have a mint patch, so take a handful of fresh leaves and stems, crush them a little, then add them to the dried leaves of the Earl Gray. Pour boiling water over the mixture and letting it steep.

    Earl Grey makes great iced tea by itself, of course.

    And bergamot is so wonderful in perfume!

    I've often wondered why bergamot isn't grown in California; they have the Meyer lemons and many backyards have a lemon tree. The climate is similar to Italy's...odd.

  5. Love the recipe for Bergamot sweet - definitely deserves to be tried.
    Is local raki you mentioned made from grapes (usually after the grapes are first pressed for wine)? Because we call it rakija here (and my favorite is made with herbs but the idea with bergamot is intriguing although I must admit I'm not sure if you're supposed to put the peel in it or the fruit?

  6. As a tea lover, it was only a matter of time before I sampled Earl Grey and Lady Grey teas. I now love them both! I keep a box of Earl Grey in my office desk, along with a box of green tea, green tea with jasmine and black Mayang tea from Sarawak (the state in Malaysia I am originally from). Lady Grey is more a picnic in the park type of tea, it's a lovely brew over a chat with the girls.

  7. "Consortium of labdanum from cistus creticus" Nice Idea?

  8. Jen,

    you should definitely try it again iced for summer. Very refreshing!
    You recipe with thyme and honey sound delectable. Or thyme honey, even better!! ;-)

  9. Thank you Alyssa and thank you for your linkage as well.

    Hoodoo is quite interesting from its own angle, one might choose to believe or not, but investigating is surely interesting! Are you familiar with this writer/investigator/composer, Catherine Yronwode?She recommends bergamot mint for drawing in a new lover :-)

  10. Ooops, and I forgot: indeed how CARELESS and IRRESPONSIBLE of me to suggest using bergamot! Anyway, if I am living proof it doesn't kill, I can vouch for consuming lots of it throughout my life....

  11. Rox,

    thank you! We share the love obviously. I think you should definitely try the Spoonful Treat, it's very aromatic and easy to make (it just takes tiiiime to change the water so many times).
    Basically locally we make almost every fruit in a similar dessert and they're truly delicious. Sour Cherry is my favourite, I should send you some over to try it out and post a recipe in the future for all our readers. It's DELISH!

  12. P,

    another one who likes to drink it iced as well! Thanks for the wonderful suggestion of adding mint too. I bet it should taste lovely. (I like to add mint to my vanilla ice-cream or a clear sorbet such as champagne, a couple of fresh leaves on the top gives a wonderful aroma).

    It's quite perplexing why California isn't growing bergamots. They'd probably "catch" quite well, as you say! I know they're grown at the west of Greece predominantly Ionian islands, close to Sicily and Calabria), so it might have something to do with the microclimate, although I have seen them at other spots throughout the country as well. Therefore...

  13. Hello Ines,

    brilliant addition: yes, it's the same with rakija! It's the second fermentation of the grapes (στεμφυλα and pits) after the one for wine. (same as brandy, only they remove them before they give colour to the juice).

    Do you like Slivovitza and Becherovka? I ADORE them!!! Such complex herbal aroma.

  14. Hi D!

    Yes, great idea! I don't know how it could be put to action, but if I find out I will let you know.
    (ευχαριστώ για το mail, δεν μπόρεσα να απαντήσω εκτενώς, αλλά αν μάθω κάτι θα ενημερώσω άμεσα!!)

  15. Audit,

    perfect description! Lady Grey is..girlish! I can well see it at a picnic.
    I am very much interested in Southeastern varieties, as they're not so popular as the Assam, Ceylon and Chinese varieties. It's like wines, every region has their own peculiarities. If you have any special brand to rec, I'm all ears.

  16. ooh, I love becherovka but slivovica needs to be done without the pits (sometimes people here are lazy and do not take them out), then it's good. I don't know if you've been to Croatia already, but if you ever visit, depending on where you go, you have a whole assortment of different types of rakija. Personally, I think the best can be found in Istria, together with a number of fabulous dishes. :) And teran (sort of red wine - don't know the English version of the name).

  17. Ines,

    I haven't tried Slivovica with pits, although my experiences are not with homemade drinks, but bought at the store. (not that I would be adverse to homemade, I should be so lucky!) Istria indeed has a fabulous cuisine, glad you brought this into the discussion. :-))

    So how is teran? I haven't tried that! Is it full-bodied, dry, tannic, balanced, sweeter?

  18. Oh and Ines, I forgot to say: you're supposed to only put rolls of the cut, sliced peel in the bottle with the alcoholic drink, not the fruit itself as it would ruin the drink with its intense bitterness.

  19. Fiordiligi13:14

    Late to the party on this one, dear E, but as ever a delightful article.

    I have to tell you that Laduree have brought out a "Limited Edition" (yes, even patissiers do this) macaroon in bergamot flavour, and both the colour and the flavour are heavenly!

  20. I'm late with the reply on teran. The thing is, it is very common here to be able to get homemade variants of both wine and rakija, because everyone knows someone who has something good to sell. Sometimes not so good, but not often. :) Anyway, a good teran has a bit heavy taste (maybe more so because it also smells heavy), dry and tannic and the smell is something I can't associate with any other wine (for the time being), having an earthy grape smell which reminds me of little konobas (konoba = sth like a tavern) sprinkled all over Istria.

    Thanks for the bergamot peel explanation. :)

  21. Hi Ines again!

    Thank you for the teran info. Now I am more intrigued than ever! Dry and tannic sounds like it's worth exploring. I guess the heavy smell has to do with the tannins, I have noticed that with the Xinomauro grape variety which I realise is quite prevalent in the Balkans.

  22. We have linked this post of yours to ours regarding the origins of citrus fruits.

    Most lovely, fragrant blog !

  23. Late in responding but thank you! :D


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