To the Road Ahead

So here we stand, at the eve of a new year. With all its promises and uncertainties.

I have taken some time off from the blog and will be back in action in the new year. And just in case you were worried that I’d somehow fallen off of the giant turtle’s earth disc, I’ve got photo evidence of my travels these past weeks:

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As I seem to have found myself in love with a German, I’ve been seeing friends and family in that area as well as home. Lots of Christmas markets were involved. Probably the cutest and prettiest of them all was Sint Nikolaus Dorf in Köln.

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There was maybe a bit too much food and Glühwein involved, and we had an absolutely lovely time.
We also visited a monastery called Mariawald, known for its delicious pea soup.

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It is also very pretty!

We also visited my friends and family in the Netherlands, and we’re only flying back home next week. I will be starting with the tea room reviews again on the 11th of January. Book reviews start again next Friday, when I’ll be starting my first series review: the Ender’s Game quartet by Orson Scott Card. In honour of the new Star Wars movie (have you seen it? You should) January will be sci-fi month.

After sci-fi month I’ll review Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci series. Because I love it.

2016 will be the year I dedicate to the things I love and I will take you, the reader, with me. Because happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops on yourself.

So thank you for reading, and here’s to the road ahead!

Happy 2016!

Café Reichard (Cologne)

Boom!
We’re now a travel blog!

My partner and I went home for the holidays and after all the Christmas market bacchanal we decided to get a nice cup of calming tea. Since we were at the centre of Köln one of the main places to visit would be Café Reichard, so we decided to go.

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I am very easily tempted by sweets, and upon entering the cafe you are immediately in front of a gorgeous display of cakes, cookies and chocolates. Very dangerous indeed! You can’t purchase them at the counter though if you’re sitting in, so that is safe enough. When you finally manage to tear yourself away from the cakes you enter the seating area.

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This place is very big and very busy. You can just seat yourself, and we got a nice little booth.
The seating is also where the problems arise with this place: it’s not very relaxing. There is a constant flux of people coming in and leaving, and because the hall is quite large the noise level gets a bit oppressive.

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They did have a pianist and violinist who were very good, and live music always creates a nice atmosphere.
Afternoon tea is not really a part of German culture, where instead you would have Tee (or Kaffee) und Kuchen, or tea and cakes. Also Germans are very good at baking, so Tee und Kuchen is definitely recommended!

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After lots of Christmas markets and other tourist stuff had kept us busy, I decided to go for a nice soothing white tea. Their selection is not very large, so they had only one – but it was delicious. Their Sachertorte was also very yummy.

All in all, this is quite a touristic place, and coming here expecting a relaxing tea experience would be wrong. That said, their teas and cakes are good, and the whole interior combined with the live music makes it deliciously tongue-in-cheek pompous. One thing I would definitely recommend is to go to the bathrooms, they’re very classy and high tech. For example, the stall doors are see-through – until you lock the door, when they turn opaque. An odd thing to point out in a cafe review I imagine, but someone put a lot of effort and money in it and that person deserves a raise. Or at least cake.

A Boy Called Christmas

An impossibility is just a possibility you don’t understand.

It’s Christmas!!

Well, okay, so it kind of isn’t. Not yet at least.
But with everything decorated so prettily, and the trees, markets and Glühwein, I can’t help but feel absolutely festive already.

So in light of my Christmas-y mood, I decided to take matters into my own hands damn it!
Christmas here starts now, and there is no better way to get into the holiday spirit than with Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas.

Let me just take a quick moment to mention the cover.
The illustration of Nikolas, our protagonist, looks like it’s lifted from a Roald Dahl book, which already makes it look like a great modern classic.
Also, the white details have glitter on them. Although it makes it very pretty and Christmas-looking, word of warning: it sheds a bit.

A Boy Called Christmas
So festive!

I love this book so, so much. It’s funny, sweet, sad at points – it’s got everything. All of the jokes really worked for me, and I was pulled in immediately by the first page:

You are about to read the true story of Father Christmas.
Yes. Father Christmas.
You may wonder how I know the true story of Father Christmas, and I will tell you that you shouldn’t really question such things. Not right at the start of a book. It’s rude, for one thing. All you need to understand is that I do know the story of Father Christmas, or else why would I be writing it?

It’s got that Roald Dahl-esque snarky sarcastic humour to it at points, without slipping into nastiness.

It’s hard to talk about this book without giving anything away, and as I do wholly recommend to buy this book ASAP and read it and share its beauty, I’ll just do a quick summary with my thoughts before I move on to spoiler territory.

Essentially this is the story of how a young, poor, Finnish boy called Nikolas becomes Santa Claus. He goes through several hardships along the way: his mother passed away and he and his father are very poor. To make money his father leaves for an expedition to the North, leaving Nikolas with his mean aunt – but he does not come back. Anxious to see his father and to leave his aunt, Nikolas sets off to chase after him. He encounters weird creatures and has several adventures along the way. Annnd this is really all I can disclose without giving things away.

As I said above, this book is very touching and hits all the Christmas spots you’d expect: a poor young child going through incredible hardships around Christmas time being rewarded for his kind nature and good heart, snow, reindeer, magic – the lot. Those types of stories are usually too sappy and cheesy for me, and I can’t actually enjoy them. The thing about this book is that it is also just so funny. The tone is usually quite light and humourous, which makes the heavier, sad moments bear so much more weight.
In addition to this, Matt Haig managed to do something incredibly difficult with the protagonist here: he created a disenfranchised child with a heart of gold, who is actually interesting. Nikolas is not unlike characters like, say we keep the Dahl thing going, Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Suffering extreme poverty but still sharing all he has, being kind and altruistic without even thinking about it – these are all good traits to have. They are also boring and unrelatable when they are the main features of a character (here’s looking at you, Charlie). Yet I was crying at some points in this book, when terrible things happened to Nikolas and he had no choice but to endure them, I laughed out loud when he was funny, and I felt satisfied when things turned around for him. I love Nikolas. Having such a strong and enchanting main character is part of the magic of this book.

Another part of it is that this book takes risks – which I will talk about here in the spoiler section! The next spoiler-free point will be marked by the picture.


 

Some things in this book I did not expect.
One of them was that Nikolas’ aunt boiled up his turnip doll and fed it to him. She fed it to him. That is so mean and evil, I cried. This boy who had nothing, whose turnip doll was the only reminder of his late mother, suffers so much abuse it is surprising the book as a whole is still funny and happy. That was the straw for Nikolas, and he decides to leave to find his dad – and more power to him.
When Nikolas’ father went missing, I thought he was either a) dead, or b) living with the elves. When it was revealed that his father actually abducted an elf and was the mastermind behind the crime it broke not only Nikolas’ heart, but mine as well. It is so major, because Nikolas absolutely adored his father, he looked up to him. And so did the reader; they’ve lived a rough life, and Joel (the father) has lost his wife, and he managed to raise his son wonderfully until he has to leave to be able to provide for him. You can’t help but respect the guy – but then that gets damaged when you find out he betrayed the elves’ trust and had always intended to do so. After Joel redeemed himself by helping Nikolas safe the elf child, he straight up dies. He sacrifices himself so that Nikolas and the elf can escape.

‘I’m weighing you down!’ said Joel. ‘I’m going to jump.’
The words ripped at Nikolas like teeth.
‘No, no, Papa! Don’t!’
He turned around. Joel’s face was full of another kind of pain now. The pain of farewell.
‘No!’
‘I love you Nikolas!’ he yelled. ‘I want you to remember me for something good!’
‘No, Papa! It will be …’

This is heavy, dark stuff, and quite risky for an amusing Christmas story about Father Christmas’ youth. It is also a great example of why taking risks is worth it: if we did not have the dramatic and, probably, traumatic backdrop, the happy and bright side would lose its shine. The deeply sad moments make the end rewards for Nikolas feel so much more justified and deserved.


 

Blitzen


Phew, now I’m done fangirling about this book it’s time to pair it with a tea.

Obviously it needs something very Christmas-y. Something with Elvish cuisine – berries, chocolate, gingerbread. It needs to be light of tone, but not too light as to mismatch with the heavier moments.
Because of this, I think this book will go perfectly with Yumchaa’s Once Upon a Christmas. This tea is a blend of apples and pears, giving it that fruity flavour, cinnamon and nutmeg for the gingerbread taste, and a hint of distilled Christmas food memories: cranberry. It’s got a Rooibos base, so it’s not as heavy as a black tea but definitely stronger than a green tea would be, and for this book you need a tea with some body. So a Rooibos is perfect! I also like the colour, as it goes well with my cute little tree.

So get your tissues and your cuppa holidays out, and let this book warm your heart – and the tea your soul.

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Casa Angelina (Edinburgh)

After our London expedition, it was time for us to return back North once again. Here in bonnie Scotland, and specifically homebase Edinburgh, it was time for another tea room review. Having already looked at some of the bigger ones, we now had to branch out of the centre a little bit – and I am very happy we did.
For far from the maddening crowds which become part of a touristic city in winter (yes, even North of the wall), we found Casa Angelina.

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Casa Angelina is located in a little basement apartment. It’s hard to miss though, as the front is very pink – which I thought was adorable but will not be to everyone’s taste.
The actual inside of it is a good balance of the girly hard pink and pretty decorations, and a homely atmosphere with mostly white walls and dark brown wood. The entire front of the shop is dangerous territory for me, as there were luscious homemade cakes and savouries tempting me at all sides, except the one which had the Eteaket tea for sale.

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The food at Casa Angelina is its main selling point, as the owner Marie Claire is a very talented and experienced pastry chef – and it is obvious from the getgo that she is passionate about her work. It all looks and smells delicious and almost everything has a little twist to it.
Also admirable is that they use locally sourced, additive free and organic ingredients wherever possible. When you book your afternoon tea you are asked if you have any dietary restrictions (which was the first time we were asked), and they advertised having gluten free and vegan options as well. We didn’t need that though, so we went ahead with the “basic” (a term I use very lightly here) afternoon tea menu.

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You have to book for a full afternoon tea, so as we arrived we were immediately led to our table in the back room. The feel of the room is like you are in somebody’s home and they are prepared for a large dinner party. This homeliness is very nice and comforting, as you feel like you are a personal guest to a great hostess rather than someone just passing by. Most of the other guests had some personal conversation with the people working there, which only hightened that feeling.
After a long working week we sat down, relaxed, and turned to the tea menu.

Although there is not a lot of choice of teas for a tea room, there is enough variety to set it apart from “just” a bakery. And actually, the hot chocolates and juices were quite tantalising.
I am mainly a sucker for the smooth flavour of a Rooibos tea (which, as discussed earlier, is not technically a tea tea), but this time I picked a tea with a bit more body and sophistication. So I selected a Second Flush Darjeeling. My partner was feeling more adventurous and had a Strawberries and Cream infusion. My Darjeeling was, as they usually are, good. Slightly bitter, but with a warm fruity note, this is not known as the Champagne of Indian teas for no reason. The infusion? Less up my alley, as the “cream” part of it was drowned by the strange sweetness of the strawberry.

But then the food arrived.

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It was too much.
Way, way, too much.

But we almost finished it – it was just too special and delicious. None of it was as expected: whereas usually you would get some simply sandwiches for savouries, here we got duck springrolls, caramelised onion biscuits, salted cucumber sandwiches and a super yummy salmon wrap. The pastries were all different as well, with a black forest pavlova, Christmas flavoured éclair, chocolate roll and the most delicious carrot cake I have ever had. By the time we got to the scones, with homemade jam, it was too late. We were too full.

Was all of it a full homerun? No, not really. The springrolls and chocolate roll we were not blown away by. But saying that those were not as good as the rest is like saying you think The Two Towers is the weakest Lord of the Rings movie/book – it is all still very good.

If you are in the Edinburgh area and want to have afternoon tea somewhere more quiet and peaceful, but not remote, you’re okay with a limited selection of teas and you love food – definitely go to Casa Angelina.
Because you can tell that the owner abides by Angelina’s motto: if you do it, do it right.

Through the Woods

“What a fine night! What a good walk! I knew the wolf wouldn’t find me!”

“Oh, but you must travel through those woods again & again…” said a shadow at the window. “and you must be lucky to avoid the wolf every time…”

“But the wolf…
…the wolf only needs enough luck to find you once.”

Today I’ll be looking at something completely different. I was browsing my local bookstore, on the lookout for something new and exciting. Something extraordinary.
My natural attraction is to middle-sized prose books, but when I came across this collection I knew I had found it.
Something striking.
Something strange.

By god, the cover is gorgeous. I knew I had to get it as soon as I touched it.
It’s a perfect combination of just 3 colours (yes, I know black and white are not technically colours), and the texture is …different. Kinda gritty, but still smooth? Hard to describe, and not what you’d expect. Perfect.
I know we all say “don’t judge a book by its cover”, but when that refers to real books I think it’s something very wrong to say. The cover is designed specifically to reflect the contents of the book, especially so in this case, and a lot of hard work goes into it.

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So pretty!

This is Through the Woods, a collection of horror shorts renowned comic writer Emily Carroll. She is mainly known for her web comics (“His Face all Red”, which features in this collection, being one of her most famous ones). In 2014 the first collection of her work got published, and in 2015 this gorgeous book made it to us in the UK.

Described by Alison Flood in the Observer as Grimm meets Stephen King, this is probably one of the most “out there” books in my collection. A mix of horror shorts and striking gothic visuals, the main thing that stays with me about these stories is the endings. Some moreso than others, all of these shorts have open endings. The supernatural, fantastical and spooky elements are mostly kept in the dark. The artwork is gorgeous, it’s got a cartoony part to it but feels so slick, and some of the imagery is very … disturbing.

There are 5 stories in this bundle. I won’t go through the stories in any detail, as it would be impossible to talk about them without spoiling anything and the atmosphere depends on the many twists and turns the stories contain. My personal favourites are “Our Neighbours House” and “The Nesting Place”. These stories, like all of them, are true page turners – quite literally so, as every tense moment is set on the right page and only gets its resolution or escalation on the left. The atmosphere is Grimm (hehe) and the creepy parts of these stories are vague and not explained, but not too vague to be gripping. The chills run down your back because it all starts out normal, it feels safe, but the monsters of our childhood dreams creep back into the page. The spooks don’t need to be explained because we already know and fear them, which makes these two tales so effective.

The most famous story in the bundle, “His Face all Red”, is actually my least favourite. The story, like the others, is instantly gripping. It’s format is more appropriate for a webcomic, as it’s not as natural feeling with the flipping of the pages: it’s more appropriate for scrolling down a webpage:

His Face all Red

Also the story is ..alright. It feels shorter than it actually is, and it’s the least scary of the bunch. By no means do I mean to say that this is bad, though! It’s just the one I like the least of them all. But saying that about something in a collection that is so good, is like saying Milka is my least favourite German chocolate. It’s all good, just some are better than others.

The scariest tale I think would have to be the last one, “The Nesting Place”. It is the longest story, and it stays in the realm of the normal the longest too – lulling the reader into a false sense of security. Once everything turns macabre and the terror is revealed, the imagery is so scary that I found myself rereading it several times on the day of purchase, and actually had nightmares. It is hard to describe without giving anything away, so trust me – have a read.

This book is a good example to give to those who say that comics are either for children or geeks. It is so clever and beautiful, and the artist Emily Carroll has so much talent, that it will suade any sceptic.
It may not be for you though.
If you are a bit squeemish, tend to get nightmares or just don’t like scary tales, maybe don’t go for this one.

However, if you like to explore the world of modern fairytales, love comic shorts, or enjoy telling scary stories – or even just feel like seeing true art and craftsmanship – this is the book for you. It will creep you out, make you put the light on before you go into the room, and it will be over way too soon.


 

This collection is not made to be light, smooth, or easy to digest. It is meant to disturb, to break with conventions, and to linger. Because of this, it requires a heavier, smoky tea. The basis should definitely be made up of Lapsang Souchong, which is a little bit bitter and very smoky, as if you’re sitting at a campfire in a dense pine forest. However, as we’re getting closer to Christmas, and the story is more complex than “just” a Lapsang Souchong, I would actually go for a blend with that smoky base.

Luckily I recently had a wee haul at Yumchaa, and I can now combine this read with their limited edition festive tea: Old Fashioned. This blend is made up from Lapsang SouchongKeemun, Orange Peel, Rosemary, Pink Peppercorns and …”Christmas Baubles”…? Besides the prettily decorated glass that’s alledgedly in there, this tea is very warming and comforting. And comfort is something I kind of needed with these stories…

The heavy, smoky scent and surface flavour hits you first with this tea, but when you get past that initial heaviness you reach the soothing fruity notes. And the …Christmas baubles? The flavour gets smoothed out, and becomes more well-rounded.
It’s like sitting by the campfire in a dense, dark pine forest – knowing that you’re safe from the big bad wolf.

Turn down the lights and light some candles, bundle yourself up, and have your Old Fashioned cuppa close to you when you’re reading this spooky, disturbing collection. Through the Woods will spook and challenge you, with Old Fashioned you will be safe…

 

…untill the lights go out…

 

Old Fashioned

Yumchaa (Camden)

 

We went down to London to visit some friends this weekend, and decided to go to Yumchaa for afternoon tea.

This was a … troubled trip, as the north of England had been flooded and there were lots of cancelled trains. For us this meant that we had to move our booking to 1 day later. There were no problems arranging this, as actually you don’t have to do bookings for this place. It’s quite laid back, with a refreshingly pleasant, casual feel about it  (this coming from someone who absolutely adores the traditional tea room ways).

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When you enter the Camden branch of this large London based chain, you are immediately struck by the adorable counter. All the teas they have are available for smell testing right at the entrance, and there is a nice range of sweets and sandwiches to go with your drink. Honestly, there are just so many teas, I was stood at the counter sniffing teas for a good couple of minutes – and nobody thought (or at least, said) I was a weirdo!

Maybe that’s because it’s Camden, but I think it’s also just the Yumchaa atmosphere. This tea room has a distinctive feel to it. Its decor is all wood, with subtle wallpaper and classic looking furniture. It was packed with students. And Mac books. Which marks this as a hipster café, and quite frankly, it pulls it off very well.

The staff is wonderful, and I felt a little bit bad as they were working so hard (it was quite busy), while also answering my questions about their products in detail and giving me personalised recommendations. These ladies behind the counter are very knowledgeable about their teas, so very friendly, and recommended a chocolate velvet log slice to go with my Russian Caravan.

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We got the one spot at the window, so we could people watch in Camden – a thoroughly enjoyable pastime – but the table is just a tad too low for comfort. This problem is not the case for any of the other seats though, and frankly, the couch is so comfortable and the people watching so fun that you hardly notice the table at all.

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The tea here is good. Very good, actually – so good that I bought 6 packets to bring home with me! The tableware is modern and functional, and we all received clear instructions on how to brew our blend.

My Russian Caravan was a blend with a base of Lapsang Souchong, giving it a very smoky character. Although it does have that peaty, whisky taste to it, it had just a teeny hint of freshness to it to set it apart. This is due to the Keemun, which is just a tad floral and has notes of cocoa, and the lighter nature of the Oolong, which made up the blend. As the lady at the till suggested, this tea goes very well with chocolate, but unfortunately the cake was a bit too dry.

That said, I had a wee bit of a haul due to the impressive quality of their teas, and we spent a very pleasant couple of hours sipping and watching. I don’t go to London very often at all, but the next time I do I will make sure to go back to Yumchaa. And in the meanwhile, I can enjoy some at home.

Peter Pan (and Wendy)

This week’s reading is the first requested one!
Thank you Marieke, and I hope you enjoy this piece of Neverland.

On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.

Who doesn’t know the story of Peter Pan?
Most of us will be familiar with the Disney classic, a very popular and (radical opinion time:) good adaptation. Not many know that Peter Pan in its first telling was a stage play by J. M. Barrie, who after its tremendous success adapted his story into a children’s novel.

The adaptation that captures the feel of the original story the most, I think, is 1991’s Hook, starring the brilliant and late Robin Williams. This film shows what happens when Peter comes back to Neverland after having been gone for a long time, and having forgotten about everyone there.

The reason I think this adaptation is amongst the best is because it keeps some of the beautiful language that was in the original:

You know that place between sleep and awake, that place where you still remember dreaming? That’s where I’ll always love you. That’s where I’ll be waiting.

It also does not leave out the more troubling parts or aspects of Peter Pan; the death and utter carelessness of Peter (although Hook‘s Peter is a good person).
For you see, even though I love Peter Pan and Wendy, I really don’t like Peter Pan.

Peter Pan and Wendy tells the tale of the Darling children, headed by Wendy, who get lured to Neverland by the boy who never grows up: Peter Pan. There, the boys have many adventures and Wendy becomes the mother to her brothers and Peter and his lost boys. Together they fight the pirates, led by the dreadful and foppish captain Hook. In the very end, the Darling children fly back to their home in London and take the lost boys with them, leaving Peter (by his own choice) in Neverland, where he’ll never have to grow up.

There is a lot of death in this story, some of it hidden. The lost boys, “Indians” and pirates are in a constant war. It is treated as a game by the boys, but there is lots of bloodshed on all sides. The most troubling deaths, however, are those of the lost boys. They’re only hinted at in the narrative, when the narrator tells us that when they get too big, Peter “thins them out”!

On top of that, being in Neverland makes everyone forget about their old lives. The lost boys and Peter don’t remember anything about their lives in the real world, and even the Darling children are forgetting about their parents, who are anxiously awaiting their return.

That said, Neverland is also a lot of fun: it is the manifestation of children’s dreams and imagination, a dangerous Eden. There are fairies, mermaids, pirates, you can fly and do anything you want to. The boys go on wonderful adventures, too many for the narrator to tell us about, and the idea of never having to grow up sounds really good to me, especially now that I work full time and pay tax and all that grown up nonsense. Peter’s invitation to just come with him and “never, never have to worry about grown up things again” sounds pretty good to me now!

Wendy is head over heels in love with Peter, as are actually all girls in Neverland. Peter, however, is in that boy’s phase of life forever and is just not that into any of them. This is played more for laughs than as something sad, and it actually works here. These kids are just too young for one sided love to be a painful drama, it is how it is. And to see Wendy fall so fast and so hard for Peter is actually very cute and sweet. It is reminiscent of first love. Silly and sweet.

The children are taught to fly, with some fairydust (reluctantly provided by Tinker Bell, the most prototypical example of unrequited love), and the belief they can. And that, I think, is really nice. No I don’t think you can actually fly fly (please don’t try!), but I do believe that you can escape your situation and go somewhere better with some help and a lot of faith.
Is Neverland strictly better? No, probably not in the long run. But for the time they were there, it provided the children with happiness.
And isn’t that all we ever strive for?


 

This is a story about nostalgia. Nostalgia for childhood, adventure and domesticity all the same.

It’s actually really hard to think of a good tea to accompany this read. It needs something adventurous, light, slightly fruity and maybe nutty…but where does the sense of danger come in? The saltiness of the seawater or the peatiness of a forest?

The closest I can get to this multi-faceted novel is with Orange Pistacio Rooibos, by Anteaques. It is fruity, refreshing and slightly playful: befitting of the surface impressions of Neverland and the sweet puppy love between Wendy and Peter (well, mostly from Wendy anyways). Because of the pistachios it’s also got a bit more body to it without getting the heavy, earthy flavour that often comes with nut flavoured teas.
On top of that, rooibos is actually not a tea in the traditional sense. Whereas tea is made from dried and processed tea leaves, rooibos is made from processed redbush needle like leaves – not from tea plants. It is also the one main South African tea.
Sure, maybe it’s a bit corny, but I feel like this adds that little kick to the tea: the light and pleasant flavour is there, but it’s not all there is to it. And what you have is not exactly what you think it is, there is more to it.
Just like Neverland.

So enjoy your cup of tea-that-is-not-technically-tea, grab some fairydust, and let yourself be transported back to your childhood dreamland. And try to avoid the crocodile.

Orange Pistachio Rooibos
Get it? To sew his shadow back on!