Obituary: Ena Baxter, soup family matriarch
Born: 1914, Dumblair House near Forgue, Aberdeenshire. Died: 15 January, 2015, in Aberdeenshire, aged 90.
IF you’re Scottish, and of a certain age, there is only one word that goes before “soup”: Baxter’s. If that sounds like an advert, it is not. It is simply to explain how important Ena Baxter, who has died aged 90, was to generations not only of Scots but soup lovers worldwide. She became known as “Scotland’s soup queen” and became one of the UK’s wealthiest women.
Baxter’s was a Scottish family cottage industry, starting with a handful of staff, that went global and stayed there. As a Scot who travelled the world as a journalist, the four words I was asked most were “Rangers? Celtic? Scotch? Baxter’s?” Particularly after the Second World War, tinned soup became a staple diet for soldiers who came home, their wives and children and the widows and orphans of the boys who never made it back. The fresh vegetables that we take for granted nowadays, soup comes in cartons, we even make it ourselves from fresh veg, something hard to come by in the war years.
Ena Baxter, her husband Gordon, who died in 2013, and Gordon’s brother Ian created the magic of soups which, after the tins were thrown away, tasted just like home made. Better, some would say. There was cock-a-leekie and Scotch broth, just the way your mammy used to make it.
While Gordon was the entrepreneur, Ena was not only the chef, the soup-maker, but the cheery face of Baxter’s in countless TV ads for soups and preserves created by the family company based in Fochabers, Moray. On the telly, she had that homely Scottish look that went perfectly with the product. She helped sell not only soups but jams, beetroot and “preserves”, although the latter word was something of a mystery at the time.
Ena Baxter was born near Forgue, Aberdeenshire, and brought up in Huntly, the historic home of the Gordon Highlanders. With a gift for art, she studied at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, at the time a pink granite building at Schoolhill, next door to the Aberdeen Art Gallery. After working for the Ministry of Food at Torry Research Station, Aberdeen, she became a teacher in Fochabers, where she met Gordon Baxter.
After were married in 1952, her art blended into his, and together they created something that could warm the heart as much, if only for a few minutes, as any great painting.
Gordon Baxter had worked with ICI, the chemical company, during the war. One of his jobs was to work out how to create, or defuse, bombs, using chemistry. He never dreamed then that, along with his wife Eva, he would take his expertise to another level – not explosives, but simple soup.
In marriage, Gordon and Eva Baxter found a personal harmony that would be reflected in the product. As the journalist Gordon Caseley once wrote: “Gordon Baxter was a big man with a big heart, and his wife Ena constantly by his side. His jovial and welcoming manner was the warm front for someone to whom quality and excellence mattered, first, last and always. For him, quality drove the company.”
In the post-war years, Gordon Baxter had a business vision. His was a family business but a trip to the US in the post-war years showed him that “the American dream” could equally be a Scottish one. Soup was just a product, a minimal one, but in US supermarkets, he noted that people bought them not by the tin, but in cases.
While on a trip to New Orleans, Eva was taken by a local home-made soup called Cajun chicken gumbo. Although traditionals like Scotch broth or cream of tomato were the basis of the family business, Gordon and Eva caught the wave. With her homely appearances on TV ads, the couple created a global business. She was like your mum.
So good and believable were those TV ads that chefs, women, even the occasional man, assumed Eva was actually making Baxter’s soup in her kitchen. She had so, of course, in the early days, but her soup was by then being made nearby, in Fochabers, by her and members of her family. The Saltire flying outside became something of a local symbol of Scottish enterprise.
And in a touch of irony, Gordon and Eva returned to the US to market their Cajun chicken gumbo and other soups whose recipes originated a long way from Scotland.
Gordon in his kilt, and Eva in her tartan skirt, went a long way towards selling their product, first among Scottish expats and later beyond. The couple always adhered to the motto of Gordon’s business ancestors: “Be different, be better.”
There is an uncorroborated story that Baxter’s was going to be Heinz’s potential 57th variety. Insiders say that Heinz already had 56 recipes or brands and wanted to buy into the small Scot’s company that was cutting into their sales worldwide.
Gordon and Ena declined and maintained Baxter’s as a family business. Despite the honour of royal warrants, proudly reproduced on its products, it has remained thus – a family business – although Prince Charles has long been effusive in his love for Baxter’s Cullen Skink.
When, in 2008, at the age of 90, Eva’s husband Gordon was given the Freedom of Moray, he said: “This award means a lot because it’s from my ain’ folk. This award has been given by the people of Moray to a son of Moray who has stayed in Moray and built a business in Moray.”
He and Eva went on to chair a charity dedicated to local Moray causes but they declined to talk about it.
She was a devoted patron of the National Galleries of Scotland and of her beloved Duff House in Banff and she received honorary degrees from Aberdeen University and Glasgow’s Caledonian University in recognition of services to local and Scottish industry.
Ena Baxter is survived by her three children and grandchildren. Baxter’s is now run by Ena’s daughter Audrey.