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updated: 3/22/2011 3:30 PM

Tea not the only beverage for afternoon tea

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When you have more time than is filled with a quick cup of Joe but don't want the hustle-bustle of a full meal, try afternoon tea.

With "the comfort of solitude and the pleasure of company" (so says an anonymous tea-lover), afternoon tea is a restorative interlude to spend solo or with family and friends.

At Evanston's Pensiero Ristorante's monthly tea, for instance, guests bask in Edwardian charm and a roaring fire, in the Margarita Inn's Grand Parlor, enjoying a satisfying array of tea, finger sandwiches, pastries and scones -- with clotted cream, of course. ($19 a person, plus tax and tip. April 15--17. 847-475-7779.) And you don't have to be a teetotaler while enjoying afternoon tea. Sherry, Madeira and dry rose bubbly (see Ross' Choice) are classic libations of afternoon tea.

Spain's Sherry and Portugal's Madeira -- the world's great fortified wine -- built prime markets in Great Britain, as favored tipples at men's clubs and ladies's teas.

For a sweet treat, Pensiero offers Harvey's "Bristol Cream" Sherry ($7/glass), named for the British port-town in 1796 and now an international staple.

At home, "Oloroso" Sherry is a less-sweet option, more suited to sandwiches, cookies and cheese than to sweetest desserts. Prices soar for aged "solera" bottlings, but Barbadillo, Hidalgo, Osborne and Pedro Romero offer excellent non-solera versions with caramel, bittersweet chocolate and roasted nut flavors for $10 to $25 per bottle. "Seco" indicates a drier style.

Madeira Cake with lemony accents to complement its namesake ingredient has been the sign of the finest teas since 18th century London.

Whether bone dry or caramel sweet, Madeira's hallmark is bracing acidity. "Rainwater" or "Verdelho" styles offer point-counterpoint flavors of fresh orange peel, roasted nut, smoke and tropical fruit and pair well with smoked meats, caramel and nutty desserts. Recommended labels include Blandy's "5-Year Old" Verdelho and Cossart Gordon "Rainwater Medium Dry, for about $20.

Sherry and Madeira have the extra fortification of alcohol, so serve in 2- to 3-ounce servings, just enough to cool to the palate and relax into your afternoon tea.

• Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross writes Good Wine. Write her at food@dailyherald.com.

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