Major Grey’s chutney. Earl Grey tea. The terms are generic, not brand names. They conjure up the 1800s, when English merchant ships plied the seas and the sun never set on the British Empire. Any relation between the chutney or tea and the men they’re named for is shrouded in legend.
Major Grey’s chutney. A sweet and sour relish made with fruits or vegetables, vinegar, sugar, and spices, chutney has been savored in India since ancient times. It takes many forms. Tradition says Major Grey, a 19th-century British officer serving in the Bengal Lancers in India, developed the mango-and-raisin version that bears his name. London condiment company Crosse & Blackwell began to produce it, and others followed suit. Major Grey’s became especially popular in the United States, likely because it is sweeter and milder than most authentic Indian chutneys. As for the major, there’s widespread doubt he ever existed.
Earl Grey tea. Charles Grey, earl and British prime minister 1830-34, never went to China. The earliest known English reference to flavoring Chinese tea with oil from the rind of a bergamot orange is from 1824, in a complaint about using bergamot to cover the taste of low-quality tea. Lore linking the two include that the earl received the bergamot recipe as a thank-you gift from a Chinese tea master; that his wife and/or the later Queen Victoria loved it; that bergamot offset the flavor of well water on the Grey family estate; and that Earl Grey gave the recipe to a partner of the tea company Jacksons of Piccadilly (now Twinings).
Editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, unable to find “Earl Grey tea” in print before the 20th century, appealed in 2012 for any earlier references to the term. Contributors found ads from 1884 for “Earl Grey’s mixture.” Sources from the 1850s and 1860s mention “Grey’s mixture” or “Grey’s tea,” perhaps with reference to tea merchant William Grey. The title of nobility may just be a later marketing ploy.
Image: Thomas Goldsworth Dutton, East Indiaman sailing ship Madagascar, built 1837. National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.