Drink

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I haven’t been sure what to post in here lately, because although life has been true to my busy-bee name, I have mostly been busy lying like a starfish on any patch of grass I can find in London, soaking up the sun and nattering to colleagues and friends. My freckles have moved in for summer and I love the fact I haven’t even thought about wearing a jacket for weeks on end. A lot of people seem to be complaining about the heat at night but I LOVE it! I sleep deeply and dozily and wake up looking like a mole who’s just seen daylight for the first time. I hope the heat is here to stay a little longer.

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On Wednesday I visited Opium in Chinatown for the third time in three weeks, which I think makes it an official obsession and therefore something I need to share with the world. Opium is a Cocktail & Dim Sum Parlour; what better combination is there than that? It’s the sort of place you hear about via word of mouth, whispered tip-offs and drunken loose lips, and that’s because there is no sign – speakeasy style! I know the “secret” thing is getting a bit overdone, but I have to say I still get a little rush of excitement when you walk up to an anonymous door and have no idea what you will find lurking behind. The door in question here is the “Jade Door”, 15-16 Gerrard Street (the main Chinatown strip) which is nestled between bustling restaurants and Chinese supermarkets. On arrival, a poe-faced security man will phone up to the “hosts” and you will then be sent up a dark, winding staircase to your table. Out of the gloom you are welcomed into an oasis of calm and tranquility, it’s almost impossible to believe you’re still in the heart of chaotic Chinatown.

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The main thing that’s captured my heart about Opium is the atmosphere. The decor is stylish and simple, with huge comfy seats and low set mahogany lattice tables. It’s always the exact right side of busy; buzzy but you aren’t sat on any strangers laps or squidged into shared tables. The staff couldn’t be more attentive, and the music is a treat in itself (where else can you hear a folk version of No Diggity?) The setting feels exclusive and you are made to feel like your custom is really valued, something I’ve found desperately lacking in a lot of of my London nightlife experiences lately.

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And of course the best part, is that the prices are totally reasonable. Cocktails are all around a tenner (I can’t believe I’m saying this so flippantly as I’m sure my friends back up north are recoiling in horror, but that’s pretty standard for London cocktail clubs) and they are worth every penny. The Crafted Fancy Drinks are all exclusively created by the Opium mixologists and a menu for the more adventurous drinker like me, there basically isn’t a spirit or flavour I DONT like! Which makes choosing a really tough experience, and explains why I keep going back. Not only are the drinks delicious, but they are also smashing it with the presentation. Syrups come in “Chinese Medicine” bottles, the Opium No 3 cocktail arrived in a dramatic smoking cauldron with griddled nectarine slices on the side and shorts are served in traditional tea cups. My favourite tipple is the Lady of Yue which comes with the description “while strengthening the spirit, one should remain outwardly calm”; a quote that is about to become very relevant to my life. It’s a tasty combination of remy martini, aporel, homemade almond syrup and fresh strawberries. If weird and wacky doesn’t do it for you, there’s an extensive list of old fashioned classics too including things I’ve never heard of such as cobbler, pisco sour and a bronx.

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Of course you need something to soak up those spirits, so the dim sum is a very necessary side addition. It’s a short, simple menu featuring favourite such as siu mai and char siu buns but also some extremly addictive items such as sesame-poppy prawn-lobster toast and salt and pepper aubergine which is by far the highlight of the menu. Order it even if you don’t think you like aubergines, because you will now!

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And there you have it. My latest London secret find, which I can’t recommend enough. Something else that I keep noticing lately is a new breed of trees… the painty variety. I’m pleased to see some of the grey-er corners of North London getting a colourful smattering of nature, and I wonder if it’s the same person planting the seeds or if it’s just coincidence?

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Now that I have lived in London seven years I’ve finally found “my spot”. Everyone needs that hideaway nook that they can go to think, read, write, ponder (or phone their mum, like me!) but in London it can be hard to find a place that isn’t already bustling with people or claimed by others. Over the last two years I’ve returned to this spot over and over again, in every season. I don’t know why the tree is dead, and perhaps it’s a bit morbid that it’s the place I’m attracted to, but I love it’s spindly branches and the way it dominates it’s surroundings. It’s set in wild long meadow grass which I like to sprawl out in and breathe in the fact that no one passing would even know I’m lurking there. Well, until I start wriggling around to scare off the insect & creature invasion. I’m already excited to get a little bit of me-time there tomorrow, and finish the last chapter of my book appropriately called The Memory of Trees by F G Cottam.

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Disclaimer: Yes yes, it’s the #1 blogger cliche, this is a blog about TEA! Hopefully I am offering a new-to-the-internet slant on it though, as this post is all about life after caffeine and how tea can still be just as exciting and exotic without the buzzy stuff.

Regular readers and fact finders may remember that last year I gave up caffeine. Prior to this I was a tea fiend, as you can see in this blind tea tasting post from the archives. I’ve now been 6 months caffeine-free and it has been an awful lot easier than I first expected. The main reason for this is that you can substitute pretty much all your standard coffee-ordering choices with Decaf. You can replace your daily brews (my daily tea consumption is 24 cups!) with rooibos or decaf, even sticking to your beloved brand (Yorkshire tea, obviously). But after 6 months, I’ve been starting to feel a bit stale. Something I absolutely LOVED when I was a caffeine-aholic was ordering unusual flavoured coffee beans; every weekend started with a cup of chocolate & raspberry or cookie crumble coffee. It’s hard enough finding nice decaf coffee, although Illy coffee do a lovely roast option, let alone anything with a jazzier flavour.

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Then I discovered Bluebird Tea Co! I initially started following them on twitter after my friend Steph posted about them and her revelation at the world of rooibos.  After a quick browse of their website, as well as falling a bit in love with their name, design and tone of voice, I noticed they had a caffeine free section. And it wasn’t just the dregs, this was a seriously BIG section! I had no idea there was so much un-caffeinated tea love to be had, and so Bluebird kindly sent me some samples of… well… all of it! Thanks Krisi and Mike for the very generous bundle. Nick & I spent the afternoon with our faithful friend Tea Sub plunging, stirring and boiling… and here are our thoughts on our favourite picks.

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(Thanks for naming a tea after me!)

Type: Rooibos – meaning you can have it without or with milk, which is definitely my preference.

Thoughts: As you might expect this is a sweet, flowery cuppa. The honey flavour works perfectly and makes for a really decadent brew with every mouthful feeling like a power-nap in a meadow.

Highlights: The tea blend even has little flowers in it, making it delicious AND pretty.

Best For: People who are trying to wean off having sugar in their tea. It might be too sweet for some (Nick for one) but it was my favourite tea of the day.

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Type: Rooibos

Thoughts: This might be one for those who aren’t keen on the quite specific rooibos flavour as I found this tastes more like a regular black tea. The Mint Choc flavour is subtle, with just hints of it rather than an overwhelming flavour. Nick wisely reckons this brew felt like a real indulgence, so could be a saintly alternative to a hot chocolate.

Highlights: The fact the tea shaped itself into a smiley face! I can’t promise this will happen every time…

Best For: An office worker who needs a trip to the seaside. This drink will have you imagining ice cream vans, pebbled beaches and splashy sea in no time.

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Type: Herbal (No milk here)

Thoughts: According to Bluebird, Dozy Girl is all anyone needs to send them off into the land of nod. Nick’s very scientific initial thoughts were “it smells like my nan’s house!”. Despite the eau de draw-liner, this is one seriously tasty tea. It packs more of a punch than a standard chamomile and felt instantly warming and comforting.

Highlights: It definitely does what it says on the tin, as I was yawning my way through the cup. Although this could also partially be down to the fact I had just sat through 119 minutes of mind-boggling Looper.

Best For: Bedtimes & emergencies.

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Type: Rooibos

Thoughts: Growing up next door to the rhubarb triangle means I have a real soft spot for this pink celery twin. The tea smells SO amazing that I could quite happily have spent hours with my snout stuck in the packet and would purchase it for this pleasure alone! Luckily (unlike a lot of herbal bagged tea) the smell matches the flavour. One gulpful and I was back in the newsagents in my childhood town watching Rhubarb & Custards being weighed & bagged ahead of a long car journey! It’s such a distinctive flavour and I’m so impressed and happy that Bluebird have captured it in tea-form.

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Highlights: The fact it gave us the amazing Roobard & Custard theme tune in our head for the whole time we were drinking it. Which somehow then led Nick onto making me do different gun noises (which I was terrible at) and him introducing me to Girls Making Gun Sounds. Great brew drinking entertainment!

Best For: Nostalgics, romantics or as something to sweeten every day.

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Type: Fruit (No milk here either)

Thoughts: This tea treat is basically a piña colada! To the point that it tastes creamy, despite having no dairy anywhere near it. It’s definitely stepped up the game of fruit tea and I’ll never look at a tired ole bag of lemon & ginger in the same way, as this has so many levels of flavours. We were both mmming our way through this mug.

Highlights: It tastes like a cocktail, that you can legitimately drink in the work place. That’s kind of unbeatable.

Best For: Pretending to be Don Draper.

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Inspired by the beautiful nature of the tea, we spent the rest of today lazing in a patch of long grass on the heath and admiring the buttercups. I still have more tea to try so if you have enjoyed this most scientific of posts, there may well be a sequel with mixes such as Cococabana Cooler, Raspberry Beret and Strawberry Lemonade still to try. In the meantime I’d highly recommend you seek out some Bluebird of your own, especially if like me you are attempting a decaf life, as I feel really inspired by my tea drinking future. Soon I’ll have enough variety to make every SINGLE one of my 24 daily cups a different flavour…

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I have lived in London for so long I have actually lost count. It’s either 6 or 7 years. Anyway, in that whole entire time, I have never been to Chelsea. I have skirted around the edges a couple of times, getting off the tube at Sloane Square & spying on the Sloane Rangers or going for dinner at the tail end of the Kings Road but I haven’t done Chelsea.

My friend Craig and I were chatting about this (and our guilty pleasure love of the channel 4 show Made in Chelsea) and decided that we would get a date in the diary to get serious glammed up and hit the Chelsea nightlife, and that night was Friday! Now, I have be completely brutally honest; I was looking forward to and dreading the night in equal measures. I had all these preconceptions (mostly based on MiC where I love to hate EVERYONE) and was expecting a night that filled with eye-watering prices, side-eyes from locals and generally feeling out of place and awkward and needing to dive into some serious amounts of shots to survive it. In reality, our night in Chelsea was actually one of the best nights out I have ever had, and so amazing that we instantly booked in a sequel just to revisit our favourite discoveries and hit some of the places we didn’t manage.

We set out on our Chelsea adventure armed with an actual itinerary (geeks!)  that was actually mostly based on discoveries from this helpful “where the stars eat and drink article ” I was wearing some of my highest of high heels so one rookie error was… there is a reason the Made in Chelsea bunch constantly get cabs everywhere. Chelsea is quite inaccessible on paupers public transport! The bus would have taken ages, so I got off the tube at Fulham Broadway, and then spent the next 30 minutes tottering and tutting at myself towards for not packing emergency flats to our first location which was Bluebird.

Bluebird is a beautiful building, which needs to be seen in daylight to really do it justice. White arches give the architecture a (fitting) bird-cage type effect and there is a bar, shop and then the cafe which is tucked in the corner. We settled down waiting to recoil in horror at the menu prices, only to discover it was SO reasonable. I had the best Club sandwich of my life (it toppled my previous number 1, The Warming Hut in San Francisco) and a huge portion of shoestring fries for £8! This gave us the perfect excuse to splash out on a bellini and a rossini to toast our night and the gorgeous surroundings. The Bluebird is an instagram heaven of decor; a plate sculptured wall, black and white tiled floor, just the right amount of kitsch and the service was also a dream. Not a side-eye in sight!

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After such a successful start we cynically pondered whether we had just stumbled into a Chelsea anomaly and whether the braying rah girls and bolshy rugger boys were waiting for us at our next location which we actually went off-piste (it was not on the itinerary!) and snuck into as it looked so pretty from the outside. Eight over eight is a beautiful art-deco look restaurant first and foremost, but the front is fondly referred to as the snug where those lucky enough to bag a seat can sit by the open fire slurping cocktails from their extensive menu. I was amazed that at 9pm on a Friday night we could just swan in and get a seat, but the bar remained just the right-side of busy and buzzy the whole two hours we stayed there. It was so cosy and the drinks were so good that we just couldn’t leave, and we also got stuck into some juicy tipsy gossiping at this stage. The theme to my drink ordering for the night was definitely martinis. At Eighty Six I sampled for the first time ever the rose petal martini, which was so delicious I could barely drink it as I didn’t want it to end. The prices were really reasonable again (especially if you are used to drinking in Soho like me) – martinis and classic cocktails were £8, house specials and fizzy cocktails were £10, and this included table service and they were obviously very professionally made. Far superior to vodka-rev standard. Once more the clientele were lovely. I even got chatting to a girl when she nearly left her scarf behind and although her accent was awfully-poush she was very friendly.

Lets also just take a moment to acknowledge the fact that I was dressed more like something out of TOWIE than a classy MiC bird. I just bought this amazing pink tutu dress in the ASOS sale and have been desperate to wear it with my clashing nude heels. I then thought since I was already pretty Barbie ish, I’d add my Pat Butcher leopard print coat and entirely give up on trying to fit in with the designer labels and just embrace my natural TOWIE.  I am a sucker for anything backless, and adore the silver shimmery straps on this dress, it makes it even more like a ridiculous tutu that you would wear doing primary-school ballet classes.

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Craig on the other hand opted for the Chelsea class, with a white shirt and black braces and tie. He looked pretty sharp and I was proud to be on his arm for the night! Our final destination for the night was Eighty-Six where after a few false starts and Google map disasters, we headed down to Fulham Road. The 10 minute walk took us past what I would consider the real Chelsea, beautiful townhouses and quaint streets dotted with antique lamp-posts. We took a few photographs outside our ideal homes and it was the only time we felt like lowly out-sider tourists! As we approached Eighty-Six there was a heavy door staff and I got the sudden fear that we’d be turned away for not being classy enough (!) but we were let through the velvet rope instantly and hit the bar for yet more cocktails. Eighty Six has a simple decor, bare lightbulbs and tons of plush leather sofas, and yet more toasty log fires. There were a labyrinth of stairs leading to other parts of the building but we were told that was to the restaurant (which I imagine is not cheap).  Standing at the bar I suddenly heard a whimper from Craig and followed his eyeline to the bar staff as we noticed he was wearing EXACTLY the same outfit as their bar uniform! I guess white tie + black braces really is classic. So he quickly whipped his braces down and pocketed them, and all was right with the world again. There always was going to be more chance that we’d see someone in his outfit than mine. At Eighty-Six we couldn’t have been made to feel more welcome. The chatty (fashionable) bar staff, the door staff and the other (mostly handsome men) that seemed to be dotted around. There was also a brilliant DJ who mostly played mwam-mwam housey stuff but did drop in Children by Robert Miles for a last hurrah, which I have alot of respect for!

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& With that, we tottered back up to North London, giggling frozen air into the cold night and exclaiming at our surprising Chelsea experience. As you can tell, I would highly recommend anyone to take a night out in Chelsea. I usually end up drinking in Soho and whilst it has a place in my heart, the crammed bars and drink queues and noise and chaos can get a bit much. I felt Chelsea was the perfect tonic, as it was still buzzy, busy and alive but there was always space to take a seat and settle down for a proper chat. Also the joy of Kings Road is that there is an endless choice of places to pop in for a drink that you don’t have to travel far from bar to bar and can be spontaneous about where to go. (Our map and printed itinerary was definitely not necessary!) I feel a bit mortified at the stereotypes I had bought in to, and have to remember that Made in Chelsea is a television show and not actual real life… even if it pretends to be. I’m very glad this post can be so positive and un-scathing! Although there wasn’t a Cheska or Binky or Spencer in sight… so I wonder where they really do go on a Friday night?

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(DRUNK!)

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Most of my friends back up north don’t really understand how I cope living in London as they perceive it to be so cripplingly expensive. I am inclined to grumblingly agree, although most of the things that take a wedge out of my wage are standard stuff like rent, travel, bills & brogues. (Ok the last one slightly more me-specific) I think the danger when you live in a capital city is that the ££ can really stack up is when you eat/drink out. This shouldn’t mean you have to spend your evenings home along nibbling cream crackers though…I really believe you can find numerous places to eat out for a reasonable non-crazy-inflated-London price if you hunt hard enough.

I find the Kentish Towner one of the best sources of new (cheap and cheerful) places to sample in North London. In fact I visit this blog so much that I recently switched to Google Chrome and it’s the only website that comes up on my frequently visited tab. Stalker! It was there that I first read about my new #1 favourite Indian restaurant Hazraj. As you may have gathered from even casting a glance at my blog I’m a totally hopeless romantic, so it actually wasn’t the glowing review or the reasonable prices that made me determined to take a visit to Hazraj. It was when I read that the owner Raj had named the restaurant by adding his wife’s name (Haz) to his name (and first too, good man!) therefore creating Hazraj. Doesn’t that just make your heart swell?

The day my boyfriend and I headed to Hazraj had been pretty work crazed for both of us and I remember we ummed and ahhed about where to eat, what to do, cuisine type etc as we were both too screen-fatigued and zombie-faced to make anymore decisions! He suggested Hazraj and I am so glad he did, as every scrap of bad day and work stress was soon a distant memory, replaced with cheery grins, messy mouths and wide eyes!

Hazraj specialise in Mumbai Street Food which is also known as Indian Tapas and Tiffin Cuisine. As I mentioned when I wrote about Tayyabs, I grew up in Bradford so a huge proportion of meals I have ever eaten are curry based in some way. However Hazraj got me seriously whipped into a frothy food frenzy as I scouted the menu, as so many items on there I had never ever heard of, let alone tried! And for less daring types there are still delicious versions of all the old favourites (bhaji, samosas, paratha, tikka). Hazraj pride themselves on creating healthy Indian cuisine and use very little oil & salt, which is really clear when your food arrives without a bubble of grease in sight. Relating to this I assume, I noticed quite a heavy focus on veggie options too – in actual fact there were more (V)s on the menu than non vegetarian choices!

Before we’d even started considering our food options, I was in dire need of a drink. The drink menu was extensive, with wines especially selected to compliment the various courses. I squealed in delight (attracting a few stares) as I spotted tequila beer on the menu. It’s a recent discovery of mine (a bit slow considering tequila is my favourite spirit) but I think I might be in the minority group of fans since it’s barely and rarely stocked anywhere! As we perused the food menu and I happily supped on my Desperados, a friendly waitor (who I later learnt was the legendary Raj!) came over and politely asked how my beer was as I was “the first person to ever order one” (!) I thought it was really heartening in such a new business to see a) the owner greeting and serving guests but b) enquiring after their feedback. It also gave me opportunity to beg Raj to keep stocking it, even if I remain the only person to ever order it for the rest of time! He said he has really worked hard on the drinks menu to offer a diverse selection of beers, recently adding Crabbies ginger beer too, which I imagine would work well with the more fiery dishes.

For starters we ordered the Mumbai Street Chaats, having no real idea what they were or what we were doing, we thought it wise to opt for the platter to try a bit of everything and at £9.95 you get more than your moneys worth! When they arrived like this, it evoked another squeal of delight from me (if the food wasn’t SO worthy of it, my boyfriend might have been tiring of the squealing by this point…)

The platter came with 4 types of chaat, with ample amounts for two to get a good few gobfulls of each one! The flags detailed how best to eat and what was included in each chaat. This was my absolutely favourite thing about Hazraj, as when you eat an entirely new cuisine its easy to to feel intimidated by it.. This was such an easy (and adorable) way to help us understand what to do in a non patronising and educational way. It’s a delightful notion and just one of the many ways that makes you feel like more than just another customer to Haz & Raj.

I can’t accurately describe the taste sensation that followed with each chaat as anything but MMMMM! You really have to just go and sample for yourself. It’s messy, it’s crazily healthy (mostly vegetable based and spiced with unusual ingredients to perfection) and its devastating when its over!

For main courses there is an easy meal deal offer. Main, rice & naan = £8.95. Main, rice, naan & veg = £11.95. For the incredibly high quality of the food, this seems insanely cheap. Every item was delicious, in perfect portion size and presented like the starters; with such pride and attention to detail.

As with the starter, the food was faultless other than the fact at some point it had to end. Hazraj was such a pleasent experience above and beyond the food though. Every staff member we came into contact with was so caring and welcoming, the ambience was a buzzy but not busy (although we were there on a Monday night, I believe Fridays & Saturdays can attract a bustling queue – hardly surprisingly!) and the decor created a fairy lit enchanting escape from the noise and turmoil of the busy Fortress Road outside.

We were having such a brilliant evening that we ordered chai lattes to extend our trip even longer (not a second tequila beer for me you’ll note, it was a school night after all…) and even these were the best I have ever had. You are probably starting to think I’ve been paid (or subliminally messaged though the mellow Indian music playing throughout our meal) to write this as it’s such a glowing review, but the Kentish Towner agreed with me and gave it a rare 9/10! So DO believe the hype! And if not, believe the happy look on Nick’s face…

I grabbed Raj for another chat at the end and he was so proud and passionate, it’s clear to see why Hazraj has been such a roaring success without spending a penny on marketing! A brave choice (instead they chose to invest the money into the venue, food and service) which has completely paid off. He is hoping to extend the restaurant to cater for more diners in the future and also planning to offer take away hampers in the summer for Hampstead heath dwellers. With smart ideas like that, you can see that I won’t be the last person to rave about Hazraj.

There isn’t much more to say except hurry up & go, then tell me how amazing it is yourself!

I’m already day dreaming about my next visit, as it’s an entirely guilt free experience both on the waist-line and the bank balance. I basically want to eat here every week until I try everything, then start over again… so maybe I’ll see you there.

Address: 1A-1B Fortress Road, Kentish Town, NW5 1AA

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About 3 months ago I got involved in a blind tea tasting challenge for the lovely folks over at Splash of Milk. Being a bolshy Bradfordian I will bore anyone to tears about the wonder of Yorkshire Tea and literally question friendships if I spy PG Tips (shudder) or Tetleys lurking in the cupboard. YT is the king of all brews, you can taste the cobbled streets and moors and eee by gums in every sip! Even the box is a beautiful thing.  I  YT. (I am probably the only loser who loves it so much we are on abbreviation-terms)

So, being a blind tea taster was a bit like being a really quaint spy. I had to sumbit my address to a person I’d never met before, await instructions, then receive a mystery brown paper package filled with anonymous looking lettered envelopes. There were 8 teas to sample in total and everything had to be taken very seriously indeed (eg, not dunking in chocolate digestives until you’d written a paragraph about each ones taste, smell and colour) because lots of other people have taken part and then the results will be compared and contrasted to find out which type is the ULTIMATE tea. Apart from a few burnt taste buds and a lot of tea stain rings popping up all over my flat, the test was lots of fun. I also learnt a plethora of fancy official tea tasting words like Muscatel, Rasping, Weedy and Pungent. Forget wine tasting, I think I might force tea tasting sessions upon all my friends now. A brew also goes alot better with jaffa cakes, than a glass of merlot.

You can have a read of my full tea tasting adventure here…

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