Perfect Way to Spend an Afternoon: Taking Afternoon Tea

What is your favourite way to spend an afternoon?

Taking afternoon tea, comprising a hot drink served alongside a multi-tiered cake stand full of delicious treats, is a quintessentially English thing to do. Yet although there are an abundance of venues that offer afternoon tea, I have only visited them to partake in it a handful or so times. This really should change, because it is probably one of my ideal ways to pass an afternoon.

It feels a delightfully indulgent thing to do. As formal afternoon tea involves the aforementioned multi-tiered cake stand filled with finger sandwiches, scones (to be served with jam and clotted cream) and cakes or other sweet delicacies, you really need to have a light lunch beforehand or skip it altogether.

I had recently booked one at a local period house hotel as a postponed birthday treat for my mother. Typically, the day before we were due to go saw a heavy snowfall hit our region of the UK (something which is pretty rare), which continued for the next few days. We decided to go ahead anyway, having checked that the roads were meant to be clear and indeed, they were.

Seckford Hall is a beautiful country house hotel full of olde-worlde charm and period details. On arrival, we were shown to the dining room and had our pick of tables. Naturally, we plumped for a window table that framed the winter wonderland snow scene covering the landscaped grounds of the hotel. Soon after we were seated, a blizzard commenced which was beautiful to watch from our warm and cosy position.

snow seckford

The table was beautifully set with starched white linens and matching napkins. A little reminiscent of the dining table when I lived in Italy, in fact.

Those who know me well know that I have never been a tea-drinker. I simply can’t abide the smell of it, never mind the taste. I can vividly recall a day when I was at primary school, aged perhaps eight, and the class teacher decided we would have a day for tasting different types of tea. I’m not completely sure what topic this actually related to… On the day, I tried in vain to tell the teacher that I really didn’t like tea but she was adamant that couldn’t be true and insisted that I taste a sip of every different type. There were about ten types… Let’s just say that the experience did little to turn me into a tea convert!

Well, in the last year or so, I have been making an effort to try a few different teas, especially ones with added flavours. I still can’t say that I love it, but I can now drink green tea with cherry or coconut extracts. At Seckford Hall, I opted for green tea with infused with cherry. My mother chose Earl Grey.

We weren’t disappointed when the waiter placed the cake stand on the table. There were both plain and fruit scones, which was perfect because I prefer plain. Whether jam or cream gets spread first is a subject that provokes hearty debate, but I personally prefer jam followed by cream. We couldn’t resist eating a scone first.

Afternoon tea at Seckford Hall cake stand

Next we moved on to the sandwiches. There were cucumber and cream cheese fingers, homemade sausage rolls and smoked salmon and cream cheese mini wraps with a sprinkling of caviar on top.

I imagine most people would agree that the very best part of an afternoon tea is the cakes. Today they certainly didn’t disappoint. There were mini carrot cake slices, battenburg slices and mini chocolate cakes (the latter were decadently rich).

When I asked a staff member where the toilets were, I was directed to a door labelled the ‘Ladies Powder Room’. How quaint is that? To reach it I had to climb up a rather grand old staircase that also led to the the guest bedrooms for people lucky enough to spend a night at the hotel.

On the upstairs landing I paused to look out of the window and survey the beautiful scene. A large pond on the hotel grounds had iced over and snow continued to fall, making it look almost magical. I wished I had taken my phone with me to take a sneaky picture!

All in all it was a lovely afternoon. It’s rare that I spend time with my mother without the children being there and, adorable as they are, they demand constant attention. We enjoyed conversation about all sorts of things and really enjoyed the experience. The older I get, the more I identify with my mother and see her for the incredible person that she is. I genuinely enjoy spending time with her and can only hope that my children will feel a similar way about wanting to spend time with me when they are older, too.

I am determined not to leave it too long before we go again. Perhaps to Seckford Hall again in the summer, to enjoy the landscaped grounds without a snowy white covering. I have already resolved to make the most of my local area and all that it has to offer.

How about you? Do you often go for afternoon tea? Who you you go with? And, dare I ask, do you add the jam or cream to your scone first?

 

Be inspired to enjoy your meals with Italian style!

Be Inspired to Enjoy Your Daily Mealtimes… Italian Style!

When I spent my gap year as an au pair in Italy, the family I worked for happened to live in and run an hotel. A rather historic, opulent hotel that Italian royalty used to holiday at in the distant past and celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor have stayed at.

Restaurant Dining Every Day

During the first couple of months of my stay (still classed as summer season), my host family chose to eat their meals in a corner of the main hotel restaurant in which the hotel guests dined. This allowed me to indulge in my people-watching hobby very well, as I (inconspicuously, of course) observed the comings and goings of couples and families that were staying at the hotel. Many of them were wealthy, with luxury sports cars parked outside the hotel and often were dressed head to toe in designer clothes. Guests from multiple nationalities came to stay, and I enjoyed trying to figure out where they were from based on their appearance and trying to identify the language they spoke. Anyway, I digress.

The restaurant was a truly stunning room, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the azure Mediterranean sea. The tables were simply dressed with pristine white tablecloths, pure white crockery and polished silver cutlery. Each diner was provided with a starched white linen napkin. A vase of fresh flowers, usually roses, was placed in the centre of each table.

Italian style mealtimes

From the first day, despite being seated in a restaurant, it became apparent that my host family followed pretty standard Italian meal traditions (at least for the region I visited), which I shall describe for you.

There was a bread basket placed on the table almost as soon as we were seated. For my host family this included breadsticks (grissini) and locally-made fresh, crusty bread which was eaten plain, never spread with butter or dipped into oil or anything. On my first day, I almost asked for butter but stopped myself after observing that the other members of the family, even the little boy, ate it plain. There were large bottles of mineral water, always a choice of either still or sparkling. The family would usually eat a piece of bread or perhaps two each and sip water while waiting for the first course to arrive.

About the Courses…

The primo (first) course, almost always consisted of pasta, or occasionally a risotto (made from arborio rice) or a polenta dish. Fortunately, I’ve always been a fan of pasta so it didn’t bother me to eat it every day, but they successfully varied it by cooking many different shapes and types of pasta, from long spaghetti to shorter penne and orecchiette to tiny orzo. Plus, different sauces were added to the pasta. Most often, it was sugo al pomodoro, a basic but delicious homemade tomato sauce, and sometimes meaty bolognese. During my stay there, I had my first ever taste of green pesto sauce (made from pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, basil and parmesan). No exaggeration, that first bite of pasta al pesto was sheer, unadulterated bliss and I couldn’t believe I’d been missing out on it my whole life! Sadly though, no pesto I’ve had in back in the UK can compare.

There was always freshly grated parmesan in a bowl with a tiny spoon to sprinkle over the pasta ourselves. 

The main course, known as secondo, comprised a piece of meat or fish, maybe steak. The fish usually had bones, sometimes was a whole baked fish so I had to learn quickly how to deal with removing those bones. Sometimes they even had an omelettte or a couple of fried eggs with a side dish of vegetables (contorno) or salad. For every meal, olive oil and/ or balsamic vinegar was present as the salad dressing and often drizzled over other vegetables, too.

Sweet Treats

With regards to dessert, this was usually just a bowl of fruit from which we all helped ourselves, sometimes to several pieces. This is a ritual I’d like to start with my own kids as it certainly helps ensure the five-a-day get consumed. Only occasionally, perhaps once a fortnight, would there be a different type of dessert such as creme brulee or a selection of choux pastry delicacies purchased from a local specialist shop. However, plenty of Italians  clearly do possess a sweet tooth, as lots of them buy a gelato (ice cream) from one of the many gelaterie in town. It was often an afternoon treat for me to buy one, too, when I wasn’t working (between 3-6pm).

What I’ve detailed above was standard procedure for both lunch (starting at 1.30 or so) and dinner (from 8.00). If people were feeling less hungry, they sometimes opted to have a very small portion of pasta. Perhaps it sounds like a lot of food, but Italians are not big breakfast eaters. Adults often consider coffee a breakfast in itself, perhaps with a croissant. Plus, generally speaking they do not snack a lot between meals. When I was invited to eat at several friends’ homes during my stay, I found the types of food and number of courses to be similar each time.

When the main tourist season finished and the restaurant closed (apart from breakfast time), my host family instead opted to take their meals in a small private room. The types of foods consumed and the courses remained the same, though. As did the beautifully laid table complete with fresh flowers and starched napkins.

Inspiration for my Family’s Mealtimes here in England

When I make the effort to set our table at home in an attentive, beautiful way, it sure seems to make the meal more of an occasion and makes me feel as though I want to slow down and enjoy the experience more. When we eat outside al fresco in the summer, my eldest daughter enjoys picking a few flowers from the garden to place in a vase and fills a jug of water with ice cubes and lemon slices. This, along with a pretty tablecloth really enhances the experience for all of us, even the children (as a bonus they tend to eat better, too).

Even though we don’t manage to sit down and eat an evening meal together as a family every single night, reminiscing over the mealtimes I experienced with my host family has inspired me to renew my effort to make dinners a more positive and pleasurable experience for my family, too.

Actions I plan to implement:

  • Move the vase of fresh flowers that I usually have on the kitchen worktop to the kitchen table before I serve dinner.
  • Cover the table with a clean, pretty tablecloth just before family meals (rather than the scruffy one that protects the table from my eldest daughters’ glue and sticker attacks).
  • Make dessert be a ‘fruit course’ similarly to what I experienced.
  • Experiment cooking different types of vegetable side dishes.

I hope you enjoyed this insight into eating meals the Italian way.

I’m fascinated by how people live their lives in different countries and cultures, so if you live outside the UK, or have lived elsewhere, I would really love to hear what mealtimes were like there, please do leave a comment. I really love hearing from readers, whether you read my blog regularly or it’s your first visit here 🙂

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How to enjoy life's simple pleasures

How to Savour the Simple Pleasures of Life

Although we all enjoy celebrating and anticipating the big events in life, such as birthdays, Christmas, holidays away from home etc, it’s important to be present in the moment and enjoy the simple luxuries that we can partake in the everyday, too; the petits plaisirs as the French would call them.

In one of my favourite films, the French movie Amelie, I love the way that each character is introduced by listing three simple pleasures that they appreciate in life. It’s prompted to make me compile a list of my own simple pleasures. Here they are, in no particular order:

Hot showers with a lovely scented shower gel. A perfect way to start the day and help wake me up up properly. My current favourite is Black Orchid scent by Palmolive- all the better that it’s a bargain! (See post on my favourite bargain beauty buys here).

Slipping into clean bed linen– all the better if it’s been air dried outside.

Listening to the sound of the rain drumming onto our Velux windows in the bedroom while I’m tucked up in my warm bed. The rhythmic sound often sends me to sleep.

The huge old oak tree at the bottom of our garden- at a guess, it’s 200 years old. I love watching it change through the seasons, the different coloured leaves, watching different birds rest on the branches and make nests within it. Every time I look at the  many branches and the thick, sturdy trunk it awes me to think that something so great can grow from a tiny acorn and like to think of this metaphor being applied to other things in life.

Flowers– I adore all types of fresh flowers as detailed here and try to have fresh flowers in the house as much as possible. It lifts my spirits to see flowers growing in gardens or the wild. At the moment we have cyclamen and pansies in our garden and in a few weeks there will be crocuses, snowdrops and daffodils signalling the start of spring on its way.

Reading– I’ve been a bookworm for as long as I can remember. Everything about books is wonderful to me- from the feel of the crisp pages inside a book, roaming through libraries and bookshops containing shelves upon shelves of new books to get my hands on and get lost within. At any given time I have a stack of books waiting to be devoured, kept in a shallow wicker basket in my living room. Novels and non-fiction books about social history from WW1 onwards fascinate me in particular and pondering the lives of others who lived in the past gives me a sense of renewed appreciation for everyday conveniences such as our indoor bathroom, washing machine etc which I can otherwise take for granted.

Fluffy winter house socks- for some reason, I’ve never been a fan of wearing slippers. Fluffy winter socks are another matter entirely. Sliding them onto my feet on a chilly winter day, the super soft fibres warming and insulating my skin, feels like sheer bliss.

As I’ve said before, winter happens to be my least favourite season, despite the fact that winters in my part of the U.K. are pretty mild really. So it’s all the more important that I regularly remind myself of the simple pleasures to be grateful for.

What are you little luxuries that you enjoy on a regular basis? Please do share them. I would love to hear them as they may even remind me of some I’ve forgotten or introduce me to new ones.

How to spend less on your food or grocery shopping

How to Spend less on your Food or Grocery Shopping

Just a few years ago, our grocery bill used to be below the average spend for a family of our size. Gradually though, our grocery spends have crept up frighteningly fast.

Ok, some of the increase can be attributed to to the increase in the number of people we have in our household and the corresponding spends on nappies, fruit, snacks etc. But if I’m honest, we have become a bit lazy and allowed convenience foods to sneak into the trolley far more than they ever used to and those convenience foods obviously cost more. We don’t buy a ridiculous number of takeaways, but even these have been happening more frequently than they used to.

There’s no excuse for this really, other than perhaps for a few months when our youngest was a newborn and I was recovering from surgery. Bad habits snuck in and products that we bought as a one-off due to a promotional price became regular purchases at the standard price.

Anyway, it’s time to rectify the situation. Here are the steps I intend to follow:

Carry out a stock take 

Our freezer is pretty full right now. I need to grab a pen and paper and jot down everything contained within the drawers of it. There is quite a bit of meat and fish I suspect, plus some Quorn (a meat substitute that is vegetarian but we like despite being omnivores ourselves).

Our cupboards also contain a fair amount of canned vegetables, beans, packets of couscous and rice.

Meal plan

I need to sit down and plan which meals can be put together from the freezer and cupboard ingredients. To be honest, I suspect there are quite a few! Hopefully this will have a positive effect on our grocery bill for the next month as we eat out of the freezer and cupboards so buy less new stuff.

Although I usually meal plan a whole week, the dinners for different days often get switched around depending on what we feel like eating or if unexpected events crop up.

Use the slow cooker (AKA crockpots)

I have been a fan of slow cookers ever since buying our first one in 2004, the year that I first moved in with my now-husband. They are wonderful for several reasons.

Firstly, you can bung in all your ingredients first thing in the morning, or even the night before if you like (just refrigerate the ceramic pot overnight to keep chilled if you do so). Switch it on before you leave the house, then return from work at the end of the day to the scent of a delicious, cooked meal ready to tuck into. What could be better?

Secondly, slow cookers are economical because they use a similar amount of energy to a light bulb. They can be used to cook cheaper cuts of meat which, due to the lengthy cooking time, turn from tough to tender and meat literally falls off the bone.

Lastly, the nature of one-pot cooking means less clearing up to do after dinner. That can only be a good thing in my book!

Try out new recipes 

I have a ridiculous number of cookbooks. Yet we seem to eat the same meals over and over again. So, I intend to flick through some of the books and mark the most appealing recipes to try. There are lots I still intend to try in my newest purchase, 5 Ingredients by Jamie Oliver. It makes sense that if I use fewer ingredients in a recipe (as long as they aren’t ridiculously expensive ones, such as caviar and saffron ;)) the cost will hopefully be brought down, too.

Let’s hope that following these steps results in us saving money, eating more healthily and enjoying our food more.

How about you? Do you have any tips to share on reducing your grocery bill? I would love to hear them.

How to enjoy winter

How to Enjoy Winter Living

Do you enjoy the winter season? I have to admit that it doesn’t come naturally to me.

The promise of Christmas and the bright lights, decorations and general festivities throughout November and December ride me on a high to the end of the year, but once New Year celebrations are over my mood can easily plummet once the anticlimax sets in. Not to mention that most people are broke so have little money to go out and spend to cheer themselves up, plus everyone seems to be on a diet.

All of this, combined with frosty temperatures and drizzly days here in the UK, don’t exactly make a recipe for joyful living in January and February.

Enough of all that negativity, though! Yes, it may be more difficult to stay upbeat and enjoy the coldest part of the year, but it just takes a little more effort to do so.

Hygge

I’m an afficionado of the Scandinavian concept of ‘hygge’, having been an long-time watcher of Scandi noir TV shows and films (obviously the scenes of hygge are interspersed with solving crimes but there are still plenty of them!). I’ve read a fair few books on the subject, too. I love ‘The Art of Hygge’ by Johnny Jackson and Elias Larsen and ‘The Little Book of Hygge’ by Meik Wiking amongst others. There are too many facets to the hygge concept to detail in this post, so I’ll just mention a couple.

Atmosphere

Create a cosy atmosphere at home. This begins with lighting: the Danes like to create soft pockets of lighting in corners of rooms with lamps rather than switching on ceiling lights that illuminate a room too dazzlingly.

Scandi homes tend to utilise a lot of natural materials such as wood, leather and wool in their decor and these natural textures look good together. Soft throws and blankets are used to stay warm and cosy. All of this helps to create an appealing home that you’ll enjoy spending time in and coming home to.

I feel far more content at home if my surroundings are organised and neat as well as being clutter free, as I’ve written about before.

Personally, having fresh flowers around is an unbeatable way to bring a little life and cheer into the home. They needn’t be expensive and recently I have been splitting one bunch of flowers in half then arranging into two separate vases to enjoy seeing them in two different rooms.

Presence and Togetherness

Hygge requires that when people come together to spend time with each other, they are fully present in the experience. This means switching off phones and putting them out of sight. Many of us spend far too long on our phones these days, it’s almost habitual to keep checking for messages or Facebook updates but it does little to enhance our connection with real people in the present moment. Take the chance to play card or board games with friends and family, or pull out a guitar or other instrument and have a good old sing song. These traditional activities have a magical way of creating a strong sense of well-being and form memories.

Other than hygge, there are a few other strategies to make the most of winter living.

Plan things to look forward to

Plan a few get-togethers with friends at your home; they cost very little if you plan the types of activities mentioned in the paragraph above and are something to look forward to in the short dark days.

Plan further ahead, too. If you haven’t already booked a summer holiday, this could be the perfect opportunity. Researching where to go and thinking ahead to the summer will lift your spirits no end. I’ve said before that for me, part of the pleasure of holidays etc in in the anticipation leading up to it. Plus, the earlier you book, the longer you have to save up for it as well as enjoy that sense of anticipation. Believe it or not, I actually booked our August 2018 holiday back in November 2016 (out of necessity due to high demand). I’ve certainly eked out the anticipation period for that one!

Enjoy hearty, seasonal foods

Eating seasonally makes sense in many ways: it is cheaper, tastier and reduces food miles. There are a lot of winter vegetables that are filling and full of flavour and can be cooked in many different dishes, such as soups, stews and casseroles. Using different herbs and spices to season them with changes the taste.

I am a huge fan of the slow cooker which can be used to simmer away all day cooking tasty, hearty winter stews and other dishes. What could be better to return home to at the end of the day that the delicious aroma of it all ready to tuck into?

Here is a post about eating healthily in cold weather, too.

I hope this post has given you a few ideas or at least reminders of the enjoyable aspects of winter. Please do add your own in the comments section, I’m always keen to gain more tips 🙂

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A weekend away, childfree!

As lovely as our little ones are, I can’t deny that they can be quite demanding, both physically and emotionally. My husband works mega hard and is away for bedtime most week nights so it can feel an uphill struggle getting all three kids ready for bed when they are often overtired and whiny. So, every few months or so we aim to spend a night or two away while the grandparents very kindly look after the kids, which makes it a mini holiday for them, too.

It’s good for our relationship, too. Due to Paul’s aforementioned long hours, we can end up feeling like the proverbial passing ships in the night at times, sometimes I am already asleep by the time he gets home if he has been driving a long way. When we make the effort to go away we speak properly and discuss things that really matter that there doesn’t seem to be time for day-to-day.

We stayed in a hotel in Hertfordshire on an all-inclusive package so had lunch soon after arriving and unpacking.  We were given a lovely, spacious executive room with a comfortable sofa and huge walk-in shower.

Then we drove to the small city of St Albans on the day we arrived. We had been there before and really like it. It is a historical city with lots of lovely old buildings, including a cathedral (see pic below). We enjoyed a drink at the traditional old pub pictured above. There are quite a lot of shops, a mixture of both chain stores to be found everywhere and one-off independent shops. We bought a few Christmas presents for people, including in one lovely gift shop called Raindrops on Roses which amazingly donates all its profits to a cancer charity. Whilst I was waiting to be served, an elderly lady was paying for her goods and I couldn’t help but overhear her conversation with the shopkeeper. She was saying how she was impressed by the charitable cause the shop supported and that she had bought several Christmas presents for her children, grand-children and great-grand-children, which she has quite a lot of because she was eighty-six! I noticed that she was impeccably well dressed, wore a string of pearls around her neck and her hair was neatly coiffed. I only hope I am like her at the same age, she was quite an inspiration.

st-albans cathedral-2125588_640 copy

There seemed to be quite a lot of little alleyways with independent shops dotted around St Albans and we enjoyed exploring them, often ending up in a quaint little courtyard or park.

We parked the car at the top of a multi storey car park and enjoyed quite an impressive view of the cathedral and rest of the city from there.

That evening, back at the hotel, we enjoyed dinner as part of our all inclusive package. I went for a starter of mozzarella, tomato and basil salad, which always takes me back to my days of living in Italy as an au pair. Then for main I had wild mushroom risotto, mainly because I am a fan of mushrooms but Paul cannot stand them, so when we eat out is an ideal time for me to get my fix of them. We also imbibed in a few glasses of red wine as it was included in the deal and was a pleasantly drinkable one, too.

There were other tables with parents struggling to deal with tired, whiny children in the restaurant, which didn’t bother us at all, we were only thinking what a relief it was for us not to be in their shoes for a change! Of course, we spent a lot of the time talking about our own kids anyway, can’t seem to help it. It was so nice to have some time just the two of us, though.

Do you often go away for weekends, whether or not you have children? It often feels as though you have been away for more than just a night or two, I think.

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How to eat healthily in cold weather

How to eat healthily in cold weather

Recently I rejoined a slimming club in an effort to shift the weight I gained during my third (and definitely final!) pregnancy. My baby daughter turned one recently and I had hoped the weight would have all dropped off effortlessly by now, but no such luck. I’ve found it harder to motivate myself to lose it this time than with the other two, I think largely because the youngest one, though adorable, is not a great sleeper and insists on being fed at least twice during the night still. So I’m getting by on far less sleep than is ideal which makes me crave unhealthy food to combat the tiredness, but is a vicious circle really as the junk food only causes more energy slumps.

Fruit…frozen is cheaper

So…I’m trying to find things that I enjoy eating, that are healthy and take minimal effort to prepare. I was pleased to discover that Tesco stock a range of frozen fruit that as well as being cheaper than the fresh equivalent, save the hassle of preparing and reduce waste. There are all sorts of frozen fruit in the range: mango, watermelon, exotic fruit mix, all types of berries that you can think of. We get a weekly grocery delivery from Tesco (which I appreciate is such a luxury now that I have young children so don’t have to drag them around the supermarket).

The frozen pineapple chunks tasted lovely once defrosted, and I must admit that the prospect of tackling a whole fresh prickly pineapple tends to deter me so using frozen was a winner. I just ate them with some low fat yoghurt mixed in. I’ll definitely try the other fruits as well. Of course it involves remembering to take the frozen fruit out of the freezer to give it time to defrost (ice cold fruit is less than appealing on winter days!) so I try to get in the habit of doing this just before I go to bed at night.

In terms of lunches, I love soup in winter. I have a recipe from the Slimming World website that I’ve printed off to make Roasted Tomato and Basil soup. I haven’t had a chance to make it yet but it sounds divine. I’ve always found tomato and basil to be a perfect pairing and often enjoyed them with sliced mozzarella in a Caprese salad when I lived in Italy. Delicious. I’ll eat the soup with a slice of wholemeal bread.

In the winter, I find it hard to get excited about salads, unless I can make them to be ‘warm’ salads. Yesterday I made a salad with hot smoked salmon that I warmed up and it was delicious (see pic below). As well as the salmon, there were baby salad leaves, green peppers, tomatoes, sliced beetroot and pickled gherkins. I’d planned to add a dressing but in the end the vinegary liquid from the gherkins seemed enough so I didn’t bother. I’ll definitely make that salad again soon.

DSCN0023

How about you, do you have any favourite healthy yet tasty recipes to enjoy in the colder months? I would love to hear them.

Moving onto winter warming drinks…despite being English, one strange fact about me is that I’ve never enjoyed drinking tea (or even coffee). I’ve tried different types but couldn’t abide them. Recently though I discovered Twinings green teas infused with chocolate and coconut. The ingredients list suggests that the flavourings are mostly natural and green tea is supposedly healthier than black tea so I feel pleased that I’ve finally discovered a type of tea that I can enjoy, especially in colder weather.

DSCN0024

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