Bergamot of Reggio Calabria
by Gina DePalma
Have you ever enjoyed the flavor of Bergamot? If your first answer is no, you may have to reconsider. For it is the exotic, rare Bergamot that is the main flavor component of Earl Grey tea. Bergamot is a citrus fruit, Citrus bergamia risso, belonging to the genus rutacee and grows on a narrow strip of a land in the region of Reggio Calabria at the very tip of “the boot” of the Italian Penninsula. The fruit is large, almost pear-shaped, with a lovely golden color, and the perfume of the oils found in its skin make it a prized commodity.
The Bergamot tree blossoms in April, and the fruit is harvested from November through March. Cultivation of Bergamot is a perfect example of how the land, sea, soil and air all join forces to create a singular, unique set of growing conditions. The tract of land that produces Bergamot is a mere 60 miles, a narrow strip of coastline nestled between the Lonian and Tyrrhenian Seas at the foot of the rugged Aspromonte Mountains of Calabria. Only in this area of Italy are the ideal conditions created which allow Bergamot trees to thrive. The history of this relationship between land and fruit could be considered recent. The first bergamot grove was planted in Reggio Calabria around 1750. The origins of the fruit are a bit murky. It is thought that Christopher Columbus brought the first Bergamot tree back from the Canary Islands during his travels. Others believe that Bergamot hails from Greece, Turkey, Spain or even China. Regardless, it is indisputable that this mysterious fruit belongs solely to Reggio Calabria, so much so that the coveted D.O.P. status was granted to guarantee its proper cultivation and use.
Today, the Consorzio del Bergamotto di Reggio Calabria governs the extraction of bergamot essence, which is used not only in Earl Grey tea, but in perfumes and soaps, candies, jellies, gelato, liqueurs and soft drinks. It is the essence, or essential oil of the bergamot that is so precious. Comprised of 350 distinct chemical components, bergamot oil is used as a fixative in perfumes for other essential oils, and is used by the pharmaceutical industry for its antiseptic and antibacterial properties.
It takes about 200 kilos of fruit to obtain one kilogram of Bergamot essence. Initially the essence was extracted by hand, but in 1844, Nicola Barilla invented “La Macchina Calabria”, a machine that utilized a system of abrasion to extract the essence quickly and effectively. It is the extraction of the Bergamot essential oil that brought needed attention and economic growth to this very depressed area of Italy. Today, it is an industry that provides thousands of workers with needed jobs.
So how did Bergamot become the flavoring agent for Earl Grey Tea? Well, the original blend of Earl Grey tea was concocted for Earl Charles Grey, a British envoy to China who later became Prime Minister from 1830 to 1834. Legend has it that he was given the flavored tea by a local Mandarin Chinese friend to return a mysterious favor, which may have involved saving the life of the Mandarin’s son. When the tasty gift began to run out, Earl Grey asked his tea merchants, Twinings, to match it for him. Whether or not the original recipe was made with Bergamot is unclear, but the Twinings Company obtained essence of Bergamot from Italy to flavor the Earl’s special blend thereafter and eventually, the blend caught on. The rest, as they say, is history. It is virtually impossible to find fresh Bergamot here in the United States, at least I have never successfully found a source. It is, however, easy to find pure Bergamot oil. I walked down the street to the local health food store and found three different brands! Just make sure that you get 100% pure essence of Bergamot, is will say citrus bergamia on the label. Be forewarned, there is wildflower that is also known as Bergamot or Wild Bergamot. It echoes the flavor of Bergamot, but is not the same thing at all.
You can add pure bergamot oil to any number of recipes to get that sunny flavor of Reggio Calabria. Just be careful and add it sparingly, as it is extremely concentrated and intense. I love the sunny color of my Gelato di Bergamotto. Make it on a hot, sunny day and pretend that you are lounging on Calabrian coast!
Grate the zest of 2 of the lemons and both of the oranges into a medium saucepan. Squeeze the juice of all of the lemons and both of the oranges and add it to the pot with the zest. Add the sugar and place over medium heat, stirring constantly just until the mixture is warm enough to dissolve the sugar.
Remove the mixture from the heat and transfer it to a chilled bowl. Add the water and Bergamot oil, then the heavy cream.
Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until soft peaks form. Whisk the egg whites into the juice mixture, then transfer the gelato to an ice cream machine. Freeze the mixture according to manufacturer’s instructions.