Family firm Baxters of Morecambe produce potted shrimp that are fit for a Queen
PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 July 2013 | UPDATED: 18:08 01 May 2016
Lancashire is famous for its food but not many of our culinary delights end up on the plates of the Royal Family. Roger Borrell visits one where it does
PHOTOGRAPHY: KIRSTY THOMPSON
This is the story of the humble shrimp and how it meets a sticky but quite delicious end. As crustaceans go, he’s an unremarkable little chap who spends his days scuttling around the sandy seabed of Morecambe Bay looking for scraps to eat.
Unremarkable, that is, until a band of jolly Lancastrians anoint him with spices and golden butter and transform him into a thing of great beauty. Good enough to be set before the Queen, in fact.
But only those that come from a specialist business based up a side street in Morecambe can claim to have regularly tickled the royal tastebuds. James Baxter and Son has been a family firm for seven generations, most of them farmers or fishermen operating nobbies, those traditional Lancashire inshore boats. Then, in the 1880s someone had the bright idea of inventing the potted shrimp.
Cooking and cleaning by hand and then using a secret blend of spices and butter to envelop them inside their pots caused a bit of a culinary sensation and this passion has spanned the centuries with celebrity chefs still raving about their quality.
Before refrigeration and freezing became common, boxes of potted shrimps went down on the night train to London to be snapped up by chefs at the best dining rooms. At some stage in the middle of the last century, they came to the attention of the Queen Mother who liked them so much she granted Baxter’s a Royal Warrant in 1962. Five years later, the Queen did likewise and more than 50 years on they are still supplying the Royal Household.
Today, the company that started life more than two centuries ago continues to make headlines thanks to very modern methods of social networking. Dragon’s Den star Theo Paphitis recently singled them out for one of his Small Business Sunday awards, bringing them to the attention of his 340,000 Twitter followers.
The great champion of the company in modern times was Robert ‘Bob’ Baxter, a larger-than-life character who was a tremendous advocate of the business up to his death five years ago. For some family firms, this could have been the end.
But his heirs, Sue Baxter, a riding instructor at a north west boarding school, and her brother John, a construction project manager, took up the reins with John’s wife, Rosalind, working as the company secretary and Mark Smith as manager.
Add to the mix a trio of cheerful spice girls – including Kath Whalley, who has been with the company for over 40 years – and you have a recipe for a group of people who seem happy in their work.
In fact, the only time the atmosphere goes a little frosty is when you ask them what they put in the mixture. ‘We don’t talk about that,’ says Sue, with a firm shake of the head. ‘It is kept under lock and key,’ adds Rosalind.
Mark is more open about what he thinks gives Baxter’s the edge. ‘Our pots are 85 per cent shrimp and 15 per cent butter,’ says Mark, who has been there for 24 years. ‘You are getting more shrimps for your money.’
They are also keen to promote the sustainable nature of the business. The shrimps are riddled at sea so the smaller crustaceans are returned to the water alive. The rest are cooked immediately on board and then carefully hand-cleaned before arriving at the small unit in Thornton Road.
During the course of a year, they produce up to 200,000 pots and Christmas week sees sales hit the 5,000 mark. The vast majority are sold through specialist fish shops – Baxters steere clear of supermarkets.
‘We just do not compromise on quality,’ says Sue. ‘That’s not negotiable. We know we are not a cheap product to buy and if prices go up, then they go up.’ Mark adds: ‘The same applies to the process we use. It’s the product that dictates the time we take to create the potted shrimps. We can’t hurry it up and we don’t want to. It the attention to detail that makes it special.’
Sue, who has a vast archive of memorabilia that she hopes will find a permanent home one day, wants Baxter’s to remain a small niche firm. Rosalind and John’s daughter, Joanna, represents the next generation but she is just 15 and running a potted shrimp company might not be every teenage girl’s dream. But Sue is determined. ‘This is a traditional, quirky family firm and that’s the way we want it to stay.’
Food of the culinary gods
Most people have Baxter’s potted shrimps on toast. Sue eats them straight from the pot, Rosalind extols the virtues of putting them with pasta while Mark thinks they’re perfect melted onto freshly dug boiled new potatoes.
Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall said they were ‘unbelievably good’, the Hairy Bikers raved about them, Tom Parker-Bowles called them ‘blessed, buttery and beautiful.’ Marco Pierre White said they were the best in the world and he featured them on his programme Great British Feast, although he added extra butter and no-one liked them. And what about Kath Whalley, who has worked there for 44 years? ‘I never eat potted shrimps,’ she admits. ‘I spend all day with them…’