KITCHEN BACKSTORIES: You Got Me at Bergamot
Depending on who you are, the word ‘bergamot’ is likely to elicit different associations. If you’re a tea-lover, maybe it’s the delicate aroma of Earl Grey tea. If you’re into perfume, perhaps it’s the warm citrus groves of Calabria. If you were around in mid-1980s Thailand—it’s probably the popular anti-hair-fall shampoo.
It was during an unsuspecting jaunt down the Thai herbal products aisle that these disparate associations conjoined in my mind—and subsequently blew it. A bottle claiming to be ‘Bergamot Herbal Shampoo’ stared at me from the shelf, brandishing a photo of what was unmistakably a kaffir lime. Wait a minute; I thought: bergamot is kaffir lime?The Earl Grey tea I’ve enjoyed my entire adult life is, in fact, some form of kaffir lime tea?
A child of the ‘80s, I vaguely recalled that there had been some shampoo called Bergamot—but I’d had no idea of its connection to the misshapen Thai lime until now. Having also recently met a Calabrese producer of Bergamot, I was aware of its use in perfumery—but certainly didn’t recall that its aroma had any similarity to that of our home-grown makrut. My mind boggled—and a wild citrus chase began.
Bergamot, or citrus bergamia, typically refers to the bergamot orange—a bitter, inedible citrus fruit that is, confusingly, rather more yellow in colour than it is orange. The name bergamot derives from the Turkish ‘beg-armudi’ which means ‘The Prince’s Pear’ – a nod to its slight resemblance to a pear, and its use as a perfume in royal courts of old. A hybrid of sour orange (citrus aurantium) and lemon (citrus medica), over 80% of its total production is grown in Reggio, Calabria, in Southern Italy, where its skin is cold-pressed for its oils, flavours and scents. Like many citrus species, Bergamot is believed to have originated in the tropical climes of Southeast Asia thousands of years ago, and spread to the West along ancient land and sea routes – starting its new life in Southern Italy a few centuries ago.
Kaffir Lime, meanwhile, is citrus hystrix, also commonly known as makrut.It’s a small, green, knobbly citrus fruit native to tropical Southeast Asia and southern China, whose fruit and leaves are used in Southeast Asian cuisine (not least, the national favourite, tom yum goong). In traditional Thai medicine, it’s well-known as an effective blood purifier, an antioxidant with cancer-preventing properties—and is also found in herbal compresses and formulas for the scalp, hair and skin (aha!).
So, aside from sharing their millennia-old ancestral home in Southeast Asia, what do Bergamot and kaffir lime have in common? Not much, it seems. My exasperated attempts to find a connection came to an end on a language website, of all places: ‘Thai people often mistakenly call kaffir lime, or makrut, ‘Bergamot’—asimilar, but essentially different, citrus fruit. Indeed, it is not uncommon to see ‘Bergamot’ shampoo bottle labels carrying pictures of the kaffir lime. This is likely due to the translation of Bergamot as makrut in Thai dictionaries.’ (True, try Googling it). Mystery solved, but, clearly,confusion shall continue.