quince brandy & glittery cookies

 

My kitchen is full of untidy clutter, silver pine cones and lots to eat. All with a distinctly glittery sheen. Nothing changes.

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The pine cones were painted by children last weekend and are waiting for me to somehow attach them to ribbon (I hadn’t quite thought that one through when I reached for the glittery paint) to make a sort of Christmas bunting to string from the beams. Next to them are Christmas cards that I must write, cards that I keep meaning to hang on ribbon and a few sprinklings of tinsel for good measure. It must’ve dropped off the Nativity play angel halo. I have work to do, ironing piling up, lots that I could tidy, but of course I’ve just found time to make Crisp Cinnamon Cookies from Trine Hahnemann’s lovely Scandinavian Christmas book. Well, we’re choosing a Christmas tree after school and I thought we’d need something festive afterwards.

Another indication of my priorities can be seen on the windowsill.

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This year’s Quince harvest wasn’t as bountiful as last year so I just made my two favourite Quince items – Quince Ratafia and membrillo. Some of the membrillo has already been scoffed by us with cheese and added to tagines for a sweet fragrance but it’s mostly waiting to be wrapped in a tin in a cool room.

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This is how I make my Quince Ratafia, a golden liqueur whose wonderfully exotic name belies its ease of making:

Quince Ratafia

Ingredients:

3 Quinces

1.2 litres brandy

275g sugar

Simply chop the quinces into chunks, cover with the brandy (you can use cheap brandy but not so cheap that it ruins your lovely home-made liqueur) and add the sugar. Shake daily until the sugar dissolves. Strain the liquid after 12 weeks through muslin. Lovely as a tipple with the Christmas pud.

Quince-meat slices have already been made and scoffed.

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And a Christmas pudding that I made with my daughter is tucked away in a dark corner. It may be the best place for it. I’m hoping that the grandparents who will share it with us on Christmas day will be so pleased that it was mixed by their 7 year old grand-daughter that they’ll just be amused by the fact that she was a little creative in its making. I was probably a little too relaxed about how lovely it is to let Ruby get on with things in the kitchen these days. I passed her the baking powder and cinnamon and a teaspoon, mentioning how much to add and even left the room to get something during the mixing. Later, when she mentioned adding a few ‘secret ingredients’ I did recall her darting away guiltily from the ‘treats’ drawer. Then there’s her admission that she may have been rather generous with the baking powder. I did notice the pudding looking as if it was trying to burst out of its basin pre-steaming. I look forward to a mad scientist style pudding on the big day.

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My kitchen has also seen lots of experimenting with bread lately. An easy overnight loaf which I’ll hopefully write about in January ( a good month for the warm fug of baking in the kitchen surely?) and also Rye bread, which I’m planning to make again on Christmas Eve for an easy supper along with smoked salmon and crab.

 

Anyway, back to the glittery chaos (even the cookies are sprinkled with an edible gold variety). Happy Christmas baking to everyone and hope you too have that constant glittery sheen around you. And a big thank you to the lovely Chava of Flavourphotos who did a photo shoot with me for a recent Quince magazine article and managed as always to make something beautiful out of my shoddiness.

 

summer 2014 & why I bother

I’ve just been picking damsons as the sun rapidly fades and bats start to swoop around the garden. It’s been such a gloriously sunny day, happily spent in woodland having fun with friends but the cool of the evening is a reminder that Autumn is around the corner. The PE kit scattered around the house and the name labels that still need to be sewn on school dresses are a reminder that the school holidays are nearly at an end.

And I’m feeling nostalgic already for those hot first weeks of the summer holiday when Ruby and friends played in the paddling pool and I picked blackcurrants to make Cassis. When we still had the week in Brittany with our family lying ahead, our bellies not yet fattened by copious crepes and far too many croissants. I don’t want to forget about any of it, not the camping by a river in Herefordshire, kayaking down the Wye, or the rainy days at home when we made a huge chocolate cake and went swimming. Even the day we were all forced to sit on the pew because every available chair was being used in the construction of a huge den.

Amidst all this, my garden has been getting wilder by the day, providing a great setting for lots of play while providing the ingredients for plenty of meals, so many of them scoffed outside.

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They may not be to everyone’s aesthetic taste but I’ve even savoured the sheer good looks of a variety of vegetable flowers this summer – partly from curiosity (I’ll keep quiet about the laziness) I’ve had flowering carrots, leeks, swede and a parsnip forest this year and found them all rather beautiful.

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Which brings me to why I bother. Writing, that is. A lot earlier in the summer, Sarah of the lovely gardening/cooking blog The Garden Deli invited me to join in a blog hop started by Elizabeth of Dig In about why we write. I have to apologise for being so tardy in joining in, but thinking about the whole process of blog writing has set me thinking. Especially as I’ve just taken an unplanned blogging break over the last month or so.

I’ve had a lot of work to do, and like many working Mums, in my efforts to savour as much time as possible with my daughter (she’s nearly 7 and I’m conscious that these carefree, innocent days of summer holidays are so fleeting and so precious) much of this has been squeezed into evenings. So blogging time seems to have vanished.

Yet I look back at some of my blog posts about last summer, and I’m so glad that I kept a record of our time rock-pooling and making potions on the beaches of the Lyn peninsula.

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The crab linguine was delicious too. And it’s lovely to glance back at my crazily wild garden through the seasons and years.

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So here’s my first answer:

Why do I write what I do?

I was already writing on a freelance basis for a number of magazines but looking to generate more work when I started blogging and initially I thought it made sense to have somewhere to refer make to when generating new work. Gradually though I began to discover many fascinating blogs, became interested in the virtual communities and loved ‘meeting’ people who seemed as passionate about growing and cooking food as myself. I gleaned all sorts of bits of info, from new healthy recipes to cook with my daughter to how to attract more bees and butterflies into my garden.

Increasingly my blog became both an indulgent pleasure and something of a diary. While I love writing about things I’m interested in – from cheese-making to medieval bread – for magazines, when writing my blog I can choose to focus even more on whatever I’m particularly enthusiastic about that day. Whether it’s making lip-balm, meeting buffalo or reviewing lovely books.

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Often my passions are bizarrely linked of course, which brings me to:

How does my writing process work?

My ideas for magazine article can often pop into my mind at random times; booking swimming lessons for my daughter combined with enjoying reading about the criminal activities of Mr Toad in the Wind in the Willows to her led to my Take a Dip on the Wild Side piece for GreenParent. So obviously my blog posts may be triggered by even more bizarre bits and pieces. Being amused by post-it notes in my daughter’s book led to Bread and Jam for Ruby and while cycling or walking I’m always spotting edible goodies in hedgerows that lead to much cooking and writing activity.

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As for the actual writing, I agree with Sarah of the Garden Deli that writing the first paragraph of anything is always the hardest. I may have progressed ( a teeny bit) from my student days of scoffing a whole packet of hobnobs while struggling to churn out an essay but I still reward myself with a mid morning espresso pot or a potter around outside to pick some raspberries when I’ve got past the tricky bit.

What am I working on?

Well, I have lots of lovely unhomogenised full-fat milk in the fridge which I really need to turn into brie in order to write an article very soon. Then there’s the sloe gin piece. While I’m looking forward to finishing reading an inspiring book about living off the land, A Little Piece of England, ready for a review. Lots more ideas rattling round in my befuddled head too.

All of which will happily distract me from those school labels and collecting the PE kit …

And now I’ll pass the blog-hopping baton onto Chava, a great photographer who’s taken the best of the pics in this post (including the veggie flowers/seedheads) and who writes a beautiful vegan food blog at Flavour Photos. Chava’s cooking and recipes are wonderful, equally tempting whether you’re vegetarian, vegan or carnivorous. Delicious too I can confirm, having enjoyed several bring and share vegetarian suppers with her.

shaken berries

Wild strawberries, redcurrants and raspberries are all plentiful in our garden at the moment. Tempting me to grab a handful as I walk past on my way to plant purple beans or to pop outside with a bowl before eating my breakfast granola. And Ruby is telling me she’s ‘fed up’ of the regular strawberries that have been our dessert most evenings for the last two weeks.

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While I’m definitely not fed up of red berries, it’s perhaps time to do a little more with them than pour on the cream. Redcurrant cordial beckons (how lovely to drizzle on to vanilla ice-cream or use in salad dressings as well as for a summery drink) but first I’ve made something even easier.

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We’ve had such amazing summery weather lately, it’s seemed more important to savour it, whether it’s pottering around the garden, sneaking into the hammock on a lazy weekend afternoon or eating outside.

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Or making sure that warm evenings are not all about dusk gardening; remembering to sit with a drink and enjoy the golden glow of the hay field next door and the changing look of the garden as the sun sinks and a bat starts to circle the house.

You may think I’ve spent a little too much time doing the above if you saw the parsnip forest (I’ve left them to go to seed, enjoying the flowers until my squash are ready to plant in their place) or the wild growth around the redcurrants. But the parsnip flowers are very pretty and there’s a definite hum about them suggesting the honeybees are appreciative of my tardy ways. While my wild growth is doing a good job of protecting the redcurrants from greedy birds, keeping them hidden like little jewels in an unkempt forest.

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Shaken berries (or currants) seem to be popular in Scandinavia, and it’s a wonderfully simple way of drawing attention to their jewel-like beauty. Trine Hahnemann inspired me to try them when I read the Nordic diet and Diana Henry reminded me in her wonderful recent book, a change of appetite.

You can use any sort of berries/currants – I used a mix of wild strawberries (cultivated strawberries don’t work brilliantly in this) redcurrants and raspberries but will be trying blackcurrants too when they’re ripe.

These berries are meant to be shaken, not stirred, so I’d recommend using a deep sided baking tray. My first attempt was in a container with shallow sides which encouraged me to do the opposite.

300g berries/currants

75g raw cane sugar

Rinse the fruit but don’t dry. Spread them out on a large tray and sprinkle with the sugar.

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Leave for a couple of hours until the sugar has dissolved, shaking from time to time.

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Pour into a sterilised jar (I used one straight from the dishwasher) and they’ll keep for about 3 weeks in the fridge. Great with mascarpone for a summery dessert – the juice makes a lovely, easy syrup to sweeten the mascarpone – these make a tasty breakfast too with thick, Greek yoghurt or labneh.

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Would love to join in Four Seasons Food, co-hosted by Louisa of Eat Your Veg and Anneli of Delicieux, with this month’s theme of The Colour Red hosted by The Spicy Pear and to Ren Behan’s Simple and in Season.

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February in my garden

in my garden…..

I’ve been doing some tardy bulb planting. Dark purple tulip bulbs – gloriously dramatic in my head but I was suddenly aware that’s where their rich colour would remain if I didn’t get on with pushing them into the ground. These were bulbs that should’ve been planted well before Christmas along with the aliums but as other things (such as cakes) took over, my timing is shoddy. Hoping this will just mean they flower later.

I sneaked out to plant them on a pretty grey day, in between rain storms and I have to admit that it was a wrench to drag myself away from the cosy warmth of the wood-burning stove. Once out though, I started noticing the emerging green shoots.

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It was one of those days that’s not tempting from inside the house but actually quite atmospheric once you’re out in it.

Perked up by the vigorous green growth of my garlic and the promising little clumps of snowdrops, I pulled up the weeds to allow the chives lining one of the gravel paths to thrive and cleared space around the chard. I did wonder if I was throwing weeds into the wheel-barrow destined for the compost heap that are actually edible. Need to refer back to that very inspiring cooker of weeds, Liz Knight

Along with dreaming up how I could add flavour and nutrients to my winter salads for free, while tidying around the chard, I started to imagine lush greens around my tulips. I’m thinking that fresh lime greens would work really well around the rich purple and, unable to plant without planning a meal, wondering if cos lettuce at the front and those varieties of chard that have particularly acid green leaves would work well around my bulbs. Would love to hear any other suggestions.

in my garden…..

….. my ruby red leaved chicory is still giving me colour in the garden and kitchen.

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The parsley, parsnips, purple sprouting and beetroot are still providing lots to harvest but the kale is a little overpicked thanks to my recent ‘seaweed‘ fixation.

Have to admit that due to the waterlogged ground we’ve had lately and the rainy days, my time in the garden lately has been mostly quick dashes to gather veggies for tea. Before returning to the warmth of the kitchen and garden views like this:

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My grey day gardening fired me up with enthusiasm though for what I’m going to grow this year. When the drizzle turned to a downpour and I retreated indoors, I set to sorting out my seed-box and made my list for ordering new seeds. Normally a favourite winter evening task, it was particularly lovely on a rainy weekend afternoon with the wood-burner lit and a mug of tea beside me. Some of my old favourites of which I have a dearth of saved seeds include:

– Crimson flowered broad beans. Love both their looks and taste.

– Mother Hubbard and Uchiki Kuri squash – easy, speedy growers, great storers with their thick skins and providing lots of tasty meals at the moment.

– Borlotti beans – love their speckled crimson pods snaking up teepees and cooking them with garlic, olive oil and a few tomatoes.

– Parsnips and Swede. Grew so easily – the parsnips were just mixed with a hand full of saved nigella seeds and scattered over well prepared soil. They grew so easily and thanks to the Nigella looked pretty during the long wait for harvest.

– Rainbow chard. I love easy, productive veggies like this that also score highly in the looks department.

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– Wildflowers. Keen to scatter more around the pear and apple trees that we planted at the back of the garden with an eye for prettiness as well as attracting pollinators.

I’m also planning to grow some new things in my garden, particularly extending the range of herbs to include lots of lovely blue hyssop and purslane (lured by all those tasty, home-grown  Middle Eastern salads in Celia’s lovely Fig Jam & Lime Cordial posts. Purslane may add an interesting note to salads like this too:

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Lots more plans including a potting shed, second-hand greenhouse and planting around the tree-house that I’ll write about at another date. For now though, we have some welcome sunshine and I need to get out in that garden rather than write about it. And just as my grey day gardening had me dreaming of planting this year’s garden larder, no doubt a little sunshine will have me dreaming of this:

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Summery days of lazy gardening and warm evenings of dusk gardening seem a long way off but very appealing at the moment.

Once again joining in Lizzie Moult’s fab Garden Collective where we peep at other gardens around the world. Selfishly, still very keen to soak up some of that virtual warmth from the other side of the world.

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in my kitchen November

in my kitchen this month…..

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the warm hues of Autumn seem to be following me inside. The golden quinces, rosy apples, the burnt orange of the kuri squash and the enticing amber of the cider (we had a little sip when we siphoned it off into the second demi-john and it’s tasting good) echo the crisp colours of the garden. While my jewel-coloured jellies and magenta liquor around the sloes are reminding me of the rich colours of the berries in the hedgerows.

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This is obviously on a good day! There have been quite a few damp days lately when the colour that most springs to mind is grey. These are the ones when I’m as glad of the colour in my kitchen as the warmth of the wood-burning stove.

in my kitchen …..

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….there are things fermenting in every corner. I know this doesn’t sound ideal but I’m becoming addicted to cheese-making and there are regularly little tubs of cheese culture or tubs of curdling milk lurking. Not to mention the home-made booze – the Quince Ratafia and Fig Liquer just need a shake every now and again and one of the demi-johns of cider will soon be ready for drinking. Guy invested in a bargain bottle capper off ebay so we’ve been soaking labels off old bottles and will soon have a good new game. Hopefully lovely bottles of dry cider to enjoy too.

My latest easy cheese is Paneer. It’s a doddle to make; if you have surplus milk you can decide in the afternoon to make it for supper. And it holds its shape well, making it great for cooking briefly in a pan with a little oil and tossing into Indian spiced chickpeas or a vegetable curry.

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Making Paneer cheese

Ingredients

1 litre whole, organic milk

3-4 tablespoons of either lemon juice or leftover whey from previous cheese-making.

In a large saucepan over a medium heat, warm the milk to 80 degrees centigrade. Keep an eye on it as it can boil over quickly. Turn off the heat and add 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice or whey. Stir until the milk separates into curds and whey. If it doesn’t seem to be separating, add another tablespoon of the lemon juice or whey.

Pour the mixture into a colander lined with muslin or cheesecloth which is placed above a bowl.

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Gather the corners of the cheesecloth into a bundle and squeeze out as much of the excess liquid as you can. Save this whey as it can be used in future cheese-making or try replacing some of the milk in pancakes for whey, resulting in a sourdough type taste.

To press it into a solid cheese, set the bundle (still wrapped in muslin) in the middle of a plate with a good lip to catch the liquid that will be squeezed out. Put another plate on top and press until the bundle has flattened – weigh the plate down with something heavy like a few cans to help press. I found a use for my extra large jar of pickle at last!

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Press the cheese for at least 20 minutes, though an hour is ideal. Drain off the liquid that has collected and unwrap the paneer.

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Use or store immediately. The cheese will firm up even more in the fridge.

in my kitchen….

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…there’s a dried broad bean. And a copy of Lauren Child’s lovely Princess and the Pea. As we slip from Autumn into damper, colder winter days, reading by the woodburner is definitely tempting.

After I’d read this to Ruby for a bedtime story recently, she decided she’d like to try a pea beneath her own mattress. As I only had dried broad beans to hand (saved for seed) she gave one a go but admitted quickly that she couldn’t feel anything. She suggested that perhaps the bean should be directly under her sheet. A good job we didn’t have the twelve feather mattresses.

Next morning my daughter was disappointed that the broad bean still hadn’t troubled her. I imagine I’ll see a broad bean cellotaped to her pyjamas soon.

In the meantime dried beans and pulses seem very well suited to the warming stews and soups that are needed this month. Recommend Louisa at Eat Your Veg’s Sausage Hotpot, which I sneaked lots of my home-grown squash into and enjoyed with mashed swede from the garden. Chorizo and fish have been cooked in home-made stock (a fishy variety stashed in the freezer since we brought back crab from Wales with tomatoes, potato, paprika and garlic for a sort of Spanish fish stew.

But it’s lamb that is going to be added to lots of slow-cooked winter dishes over the next month. Very local lamb, bought from the brilliant smallholding near us that supplied us with pigs to clear the back garden last year. I’d been talking to Carol recently about how she moves her lambs to different pasture really regularly, thus helping her to avoid the 2 weekly worming that so many farmers carry out. The smallholding is one of those great places that isn’t classified organic but avoids use of chemicals through good practice, traditional rotation etc. Their Berkshire pigs have plenty of space in orchards to root around in and the sheep have lush pasture. So when I heard she was selling half lambs, I jumped at the chance. My head is full of lamb and quince tajine, slow-cooked shoulder eaten with salty home-made cheese and flatbread and lamb koftas. Hopefully the kitchen will be too soon.

Would love to join in again with Celia of Fig Jam and Lime Cordial’s inspiring In my Kitchen.

And the good photos (those near the beginning of the post) are taken by my photographer friend Chava Eichner, whose vegan food blog is soon to feature some Bavarian foodie treats.

 

 

farmhouse chic and sticky fingers

 On Friday afternoon we picked Ruby up from school and, after giving her chance to change into a pretty dress, headed straight off for afternoon tea at the fabulous Dormy House hotel.

It had been one of those grey, rainy days when the only time I’d ventured outside was to grab a bundle of logs from the wood-store. A perfect day for afternoon tea. Especially as it was in one of the lovely rooms in this revamped 17th century farmhouse that manages to be both indulgently glamorous and very relaxing; comfortable sofas face the fire, retro lamps give a lovely glow and our window table was beautifully laid with crisp, white linen.

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Dodie Smith in one of my favourite books, I Capture the Castle (more shabby castle chic than farmhouse) sums up the cosiness of afternoon tea:

“I shouldn’t think even millionaires could eat anything nicer than new bread and real butter and honey for tea.”

Our afternoon was just as cosy but a bit more substantial than this. I was in the mood for the Lazy Afternoon, a classic afternoon tea including cucumber and smoked salmon sandwiches, pin wheel wraps, deliciously light homemade scones with preserves and mini cakes and tarts.

Guy’s chose the Farmhouse Tea which has more of a savoury bias and was perfect for an Autumn afternoon with its homemade butternut squash scones (obviously suggesting to me another use for my home-grown Mother Hubbards) sausage roll and mini pasty. There was lots of swapping and I can confirm that it was all delicious. My ‘homemade’ descriptions above are a little unnecessary for specific items too. Pretty much everything here is homemade from the preserves to the decadent little cakes and tarts.  I loved the fact that even the smoked salmon in the sandwiches is smoked over oak shavings in the kitchen of Dormy.

This lovely old hotel has only recently re-opened after extensive renovations and I love the mix of Cotswold stone walls and flagstones and an abundance of 17th century features mixed with contemporary touches, including lovely light flooding into the fabulous Garden Room restaurant. The Potting Shed bar is a cosy place to linger over a drink and I would love to have an excuse (a special birthday or family occasion) to fill the Tack Room with friends and family. The bedrooms are gorgeous too and I get the feeling that every little detail is thought through and done well here.

All in a very friendly, informal way too; it immediately feels as if you’re enjoying a glamorous treat when you enter Dormy, yet you would feel very comfortable kicking off your shoes and making yourself at home on a sofa too.

We did in fact. After Ruby had lingered over her Sticky Fingers afternoon tea, savouring every single crumb. Well, apart from the ones scattered around our table.

The presentation of her afternoon tea was as beautiful as ours, she was truly wowed by her jam fingers, scones, cookies, cake and strawberrry smoothie. Her verdict was:

“It was ALL yummy.”

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And she solved the classic scone dilemma; instead of deliberating over whether the clotted cream or jam should go first, piling it all up to create a sort of volcano effect.

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In the meantime, I enjoyed more of the very lovely Earl Grey tea, agreeing with Samuel Johnson that:

“Sir, I did not count your glasses of wine, why should you number up my cups of tea?”

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With lots of thanks to Dormy House for a wonderful afternoon tea. Our afternoon tea was complimentary but I wasn’t paid for this review; all rambling opinions are very definitely my own.

 

 

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