The countdown is now on for the 2019 Baxters Loch Ness Marathon on 6th October.
One fine, Summer day in the early 1920s, my father, on his monthly journey to the east coast, called on one of his regular customers - a high class Italian grocery warehouse establishment in Banff called Graham & Co. They supplied a considerable clientele around the Banff area as well as the grand aristocratic houses of the Earls of Seafield and the Dukes of Fife and the many other Banffshire Lairds of the day.
Mr Sinclair, the manager, was a friend of my father and, in these more leisurely days, sometimes invited him to have a cup of tea in the back shop while they agreed on the monthly order of my mother’s preserves. On this occasion, as they were walking through the warehouse to Mr Sinclair’s office, he pointed out the large purple marks on the ceiling. There were even pieces of beetroot hanging from it! “An amazing sight!” recalled my father, later on.
Mr Sinclair explained the pickled beetroot they had bought from a company in Glasgow, Walker & Forrest, was literally ‘hitting the roof’. It transpired this was because the beetroot has not been properly sterilized; it had started fermenting and producing gas, causing the caps to fly off in all directions.
He joked that my father should go into the beetroot business. But little did he know that my father saw his friend’s predicament as a business opportunity!
Wasting no time, the very next week Dad went to Aberdeen and arranged to buy half a ton of beetroot from the head gardener at Oakbank Reformatory School in Aberdeen. It was sent by rail for my mother to collect at Fochabers Town Station. She cooked it and bottled it in malt vinegar. The vinegar was strong stuff, too strong at first, but after trial and error, she got it just right. This was the beginning, in 1929, of the Baxter beetroot business.
My mother’s new jars of beetroot in malt vinegar were selling quite well locally but they both realised that there were dozens of bigger competitors producing similar products all over the country. They had to stand out in some way. My dad always did have an abiding desire to go one better.
On a journey to London, he mentioned this to his friend, James Stirling, a Grocery Manager at Harrod’s. James told him about his suppliers, a notable firm in France called Dessaux Fils, who for centuries had produced fine vinegars in Orleans. Intrigued, Dad decided to go there to find out more.
So, early in 1947, he crossed the Channel with an introduction from James Stirling in his pocket.
He soon discovered Dessaux Fils, founded in 1789, was still owned by the Patrician family in Orleans. In their extensive factory, they applied the new process of acetification to the white wine of the Loire region to create a distinctive white wine vinegar. The business had been developed by Ludovic Dessaux in the 1800s and was extended by his son-in-law, Jacques Lacan.
Dad bought a few barrels of Dessaux Wine Vinegar. Ethel, as usual, conducted her recipe changes taking the new vinegar, adding the spices of the orient, sugar and herbs from her garden, then sterilizing the jars’ contents in a special water bath she had made for the purpose. Janet Bateson and I, still teenagers, watched in fascination, recording every step of the process.
Dad had designed a striking new purple label and waited impatiently for the new product. Next, the tasting. Mum used only young, tender beets but had tried a dozen or so different vinegar variations. Our family and staff became the official tasters. Eventually, one product was chosen and our tried and tested product went out to our customers.
A labour of love, Baxters Beetroot in Orleans Wine Vinegar became our flagship and by 1964, despite competition from 25 other producers in the UK, Baxters had become the brand leader for beetroot products. Dad’s passion for quality, service and attention to detail was triumphant.
Today, Baxters still proudly holds the No 1 position as producers of Beetroot products in the United Kingdom. A triumph for Moray!