This is part one of Deborah Hyland's Chef's Choice profile of Jane Muscroft of Queen's Cuisine (qconline.us). Part two, a Q&A with Muscroft, can be found here. Part three, a recipe from Muscroft, can be found here.
Somewhere along the line, Americans got the idea that "high tea" meant "fancy," as in "high class." In fact, a high tea is simply a light meal with a meat dish or two, often eaten by laborers. The stereotypical tea with scones, clotted cream and jam is properly known as "cream tea." Add some dainty sandwiches and other pastries and it's called "afternoon tea."
Any anglophile knows the difference. Having been born and raised in Melton Mowbray, England, Jane Muscroft of Queen's Cuisine (qconline.us; 618-205-6188) certainly does. When clients ask her to cater a "high tea," though, Muscroft doesn't try to correct them. "When in Rome...," she says with a shrug.
Giving people what they want is a core value for Muscroft. Although she sells scones, shortbreads and a range of British pastries at the Tower Grove, Maplewood, and downtown farmers' markets, the 43-year-old chef has a growing clientele who place special orders. On a recent day, she was in the process of filling a customer's order for a batch of sausage rolls made with spelt flour and local sausage.
Muscroft also has a significant number of gluten-free clients. "At the downtown farmer's market in the summer, I had more gluten-free customers than gluten customers," she says. (Through her Queen's Cuisine website, she offers vegan and lactose-free pastries as well.)
Muscroft's husband, whose job with Nestle-Purina brought them to America, works on dog food-manufacturing equipment. "He's all about mass production," Muscroft laughs. She, meanwhile, works in very small batches, never more than two dozen of any pastry, and as few as six of any single type of scone.
Even without special orders, Muscroft likes to vary her pastries seasonally: mincemeat tarts and gingerbread at Christmas, chocolate-dipped shortbread hearts for Valentine's Day. To celebrate the royal wedding in April, she's planning a cream tea.
Muscroft has also developed more complex varieties of the traditional English scone to appeal to American palates. Her American scones may contain fresh fruit, local ingredients and spices, while her English versions are simpler.
After attending catering college in England, Muscroft worked as a hotel chef, then as what the English call a "dinner lady," making school lunches. When she moved to America in 2000, however, her visa did not allow her to work for the first three years. Instead, she concentrated on rearing two daughters, then ages six and seven. Since moving to the St. Louis area in 2005, she has methodically worked at growing her business.
At first Muscroft "catered the odd tea," as she puts it. Then she contacted Dierbergs about working at their cooking school. "I wasn't expecting them to say I could be the demonstrator," she says. "I was expecting to work prep!" Her background, though, was a good fit for Dierbergs, opening up a new frontier of recipes that focused on teas. Today she teaches at all five of the grocery chain's cooking schools.
In 2007 Muscroft officially established Queen's Cuisine, LLC, and in November of last year added a shopping-cart feature to her website, permitting clients to place orders online. For a while, Muscroft, who lives in Glen Carbon, did her commercial baking out of a tea room in Illinois, but the headaches of cooking in one state and vending in another prompted a quest for Missouri ovens.
A friend at the farmers' market mentioned St. Patrick Center on 12th Street downtown, which rents out its commercial kitchen by the hour as a way to help its own indigent clients and nurture local small businesses.
Muscroft has been baking in the new kitchen, which offers flexible availability and more space, since last September. But as a so-called incubator kitchen, it allows her a four-year run at the most. For now she does her shopping on Tuesday and Thursday, bakes on Wednesday and Friday and vends at the markets on Saturday. Her connection to St. Patrick has also led to a kiosk at the downtown Federal Building, where she's the top seller.
Through Dierbergs, Muscroft's students learn her scone recipe and cooking techniques. At home, those same students can serve up a high tea, a cream tea, a low tea, an afternoon tea, a light tea, a full tea, a meat tea, even elevenses. And Muscroft won't correct them.
Part two, a Q&A with Muscroft, can be found here.