High time for afternoon tea

The most overlooked business in Oak Park is an oasis of serenitea

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

I'm not much of a tea drinker. Not in the morning, not in the afternoon and only rarely at night. When I do make a cup, it's usually because I'm under the weather. I drop a bag of English Breakfast tea into a mug of cold water, microwave it, and remove it when I hear the beep.

A splash of milk is added for good measure.

So admittedly, I'm not the most likely candidate to be participating in a British Afternoon Tea at Serenitea Tea Café and Boutique in Oak Park. 

Or maybe I am.

Days before the seating, I was told I would be socializing with a small group of close-knit, local book clubbers interested in an afternoon out over proper English-style tea in Oak Park — as opposed to the tony affairs many of them had attended at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, where the price was about double. 

Despite a little social anxiety, it didn't take me long to remember that I am, after all, half English, so I returned to my roots where, you know, Bob's your uncle, being a coffee gulper who's going to a knees-up chin-wag, reason enough to be chuffed to bits, me being a tea neophyte and all.

 OK, full disclosure: Those bizarre sounding idioms, and the ones that follow, were mirthfully appropriated from BBC America's "All Those Common British Expressions that Baffle Americans" website.

"Tea drinking as a ritual is very old and something to be appreciated," says Tracy Boone, the proprietor of the little storefront café at 1046 Pleasant St. "Some people come in here, have their tea and are ready to go. But some people [at their reservation-only Afternoon Tea] just sit and enjoy the experience, especially if it's a group of friends who need to catch up."

What veteran tea drinkers might describe as a sublime excuse for a social gathering, according to Boone, began in 19th Century England at Woburn Abby when Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, is said to have complained of "having that sinking feeling" and needed a boost to get through it because they didn't eat until 8 p.m. 

After a while, the Duchess began inviting her friends over for tea and they would talk about everything," Boone said as she arranged china on the white linen cloth. Soon thereafter other social hostesses picked up on the idea, and the practice of afternoon tea took off in London and extended from there. 

After more than a year in business, and with 90 percent of her tea-drinking clientele coming from Chicago and other suburban locales, Boone said her "goal is that every seat in the café would be filled up with people drinking tea. In general, I think that all people should partake of tea. It is healthy, relaxing, and it gives you a chance to create a personal ritual because most of us do not take time for ourselves."

Earnest about drinking … tea

Terminology is something that can put Boone on her soap box because some people think the experience of "afternoon tea" and "high tea" are interchangeable. Historically speaking, they are not.

"A traditional British afternoon tea was just that — an afternoon pick-me-up — so that is why you have these little sandwiches [scones, tea breads, tarts, cookies — the works]," Boone said. "High teas are heartier and served on high tables. Like for the Irish, it was the bar stools and stuff like that because they were in family kinds of places, being with the lower class. If the higher classes were in the same establishment, they sat at these little boudoir tables and had their afternoon tea like that."

 Serenitea Café and Boutique is the second generation of the same-named shop she ran in Naperville for 5½ years prior to this, her interpretation of the tea-drinking ritual, based on research she did as she traveled in England and Ireland, sipping and nibbling her way through the countryside.

"If you were in London, you would get these petite sandwiches," she said, "but if you were in the villages and towns around there, you would get heartier tea sandwiches. In England, when the tea rooms started, they were a place for social gatherings, and a lot of people would come after work to sit and have a pot or cup of tea to unwind."

During our late-June Afternoon Tea, we received a porcelain teapot filled with our choice of tea within the first 30 minutes. Shortly after that we were daintily serving ourselves from two 3-tiered trays, stacked with the proper fare, which the server had strategically positioned on a table seating eight.

On Boone's recommendation, I chose Sencha Cherry Rose, one of about 50 seasonal varieties she is currently offering. On the menu, though, were a few teas with wine, including White Champagne and Assam Jungle Cabernet. 

That's when this tea adventure started taking off for me. 

Oh, get stuffed

Around us purred the mid-day patrons, who were here for a light lunch or tea time at a table for two.

Perched in the window seat were regulars, Arthur and Elizabeth Lifshin, Oak Parkers who have discovered the serenity of this neighborhood place.

"Having tea in the afternoon is a nice thing to do," said Arthur. First off, all you do is sit and relax and sip and enjoy the moment. It's different than drinking coffee. You gulp that. For us, this is never a grab it and run. I like the scones and chicken salad, which, as far as I know, was her mother's recipe." 

Ninety minutes later, we were sated. A go box of goodies was packed up and sent home with the ladies, who all said they'd be back soon.

"I think $25 a sitting is enough to pay that you shouldn't leave here hungry," Boone quips as a few more late-afternoon tea drinkers poured in.

Soon enough, though, I was hungry for more insights on the tea tradition in the UK, so I popped over for a chin wag with my Brit neighbor, John Seaton, former manager of the Oak Park Conservatory, who is more than a little familiar with afternoon teas.

In his charming British accent Seaton said, "Many things have probably changed … but if you used bone china cups, which is very brittle, you would always put the milk in first, so you wouldn't have any possibility of cracking the cup when you poured in the hot tea." 

What's more, even on a hot day, the tea pot would be covered with a "cozy" to keep the water hot and ensure proper steeping before the loose-leaf tea is sieved into the cup, where a dash of milk awaits. Seaton says white sugar, not brown, was usually used so as not to taint the tea's flavor, and tea sandwiches were always served, cut diagonally — and without crusts.

"Afternoon tea would have been done more for the people who had more money because then they would of course, change for dinner, so their meal would always be later," Seaton recalled. "The attire for women at an afternoon tea was a light, flimsy print frock, and the regulation dress for the men, especially if it was a tennis afternoon, or croquet gathering, was white, and they would probably be wearing boaters … so it was all very genteel, life at a slower pace. If you were not working class, you had time to do this."

When the Industrial Revolution arrived and the laborers worked longer hours, they would take a tea break with a ginger nut biscuit, said Seaton.

"I suppose the lower or middle class wanted to keep the term 'tea' in their tradition, but it was more of a meal for them, so they would call it 'high tea'," Seaton said. "But that was not an afternoon tea, as it were. You could often tell the people who were trying to be 'ala' because they would hold the tea cup up where their pinky would be extended. That was done by the nouveau riche, thinking they were rather special." 

Well, all right, matey, tea it is then.

Reader Comments

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Kathleen Gunning from Charleston SC  

Posted: July 9th, 2014 12:27 PM

How fun! I'm not much of a tea drinker either. However, we always have many varieties and when someone comes to visit, I am always up for joining them. Nice article!

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