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Thursday, July 3, 2003 02:39 pm

Tea time

Two local businesses serve up an English tradition

Cathy Delong of Tea Thyme Tea Room

"There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea."

--Henry James

One thing Josephine Datz misses about her native South Africa is a good cup of tea.

"In the afternoon around 4 p.m., it's tea time in my mind," she says. "It's the thing to do."

But Datz almost gave up the custom when she moved to Springfield 12 years ago, after her husband, Michael, accepted a job as rabbi at Temple B'rith Sholom. She was disappointed by the tea in restaurants and coffee shops. "You get a mug filled with warm water and a bag hanging off of it. It's the worst tea."

So now she dons her hat, packs up baskets of scones, cakes, and cucumber sandwiches, and brings a bit of England to the homes of clients celebrating special occasions like bridal showers and birthdays. Her business, Repartea, caters traditional English teas in people's homes. "The idea came to me partly because you can't get a real cup of proper English tea served in America. And certainly not in Springfield. When Americans drink a proper cup of tea, and it's made correctly, they love it."

Datz does the cooking, baking, serving, and decorating herself, but she uses the customer's china and tea service, if possible. "It's a great way of entertaining," she says. "It gives you a reason to use your china and get dressed up. It's novel, and guests usually leave within two hours." Her menus vary in complexity and quantity.

At one time, whether you attended an "afternoon tea" or "high tea" was determined by your status in the community. Afternoon tea was an elegant meal served between a light lunch and late dinner, usually between 3 and 5 p.m.; it was suited for the upper crust, who could afford a leisurely lifestyle. High tea included a heavier meal with meat or fish, and was enjoyed by lower- and middle-class families after a day's work.

While afternoon teas are far from common in the Midwest, Datz says "it's becoming a thing. Part of it is the novelty and part of it is the charm."

Just how do you make a "proper" cup of tea? Datz explains the essential elements: Warm the teapot first, pour in hot water, whirl it around the pot, then place in the loose tea, and fill the pot with hot water. Let it brew for three to five minutes, depending on the kind and size of the tea leaves. Once the tea is brewed, strain it before pouring it into tea cups. If using milk, place the milk in the cup first, so the hot tea doesn't scald it. (Use full cream milk, not half and half. Skim milk makes tea look gray.) If you're drinking black tea, add a slice of lemon.

"You have to use just-boiled hot water," Datz says. "You can't use warm water. That's often the problem. I use loose tea, but good tea bags are OK too. The key is, if you're someone who likes strong tea, buy a strong tea, but don't overbrew it. Don't let it sit and sit, or it will be bitter."

Cathy Delong, owner of Tea Thyme Tea Room, was hooked on afternoon teas after visiting the Drake Hotel in Chicago. Her tea room, located in a rose-colored Victorian home at 1001 S. Sixth, is open for lunch Monday through Saturday. She also serves up to six teas a week, including every Saturday, for small parties and groups of friends. Teas are often held in the house's enclosed sun porch, on tables covered in lace and decorated with silk sunflowers and butterflies.

The meal includes 12 flavors of tea; warm scones with lemon curd and Devonshire cream; finger sandwiches with cucumbers or chicken salad on a puff pastry; and desserts, such as miniature fruit pies, muffins, cheesecake, or chocolate-covered strawberries. Though her meals include traditional English items like lemon curd and scones, "we do Americanize it," she admits. "It's very casual."

A Springfield native who worked for nearly two decades as a manager at the Salvation Army, Delong says her customers include tourists visiting the capital city from Australia, China, and England. But getting the local community to take time out to sip a cup of tea has been a different story.

"Springfield just hasn't caught on that it's something to do to relax," she says. "I don't know that it ever will, but I hope so. People just don't relax anymore like they should."

Tea Thyme Tea Room, 1001 S. Sixth (528-3778), is open for lunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Reservations for afternoon tea are required one day in advance. Teas are served from 2:30 to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

For more information about Repartea, call owner Josephine Datz at 793-6452.

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