In Great Britain, when a man goes hunting to fill his belly rather than just to satisfy his spirit, he calls it "shooting for the pot." The firm of W.A. Baxter and Sons, which owns a world-famous canning factory in the village of Fochabers, Morayshire in the highlands of Scotland, has without a doubt one of the world's biggest pots. Each year it bubbles and boils with some 80,000 head of game, and to help fill it Baxter's is quite willing to employ the guns and hunting instincts of those who can afford such of their products as Whole Roast Pheasant in Burgundy Wine Jelly, Whole Grouse in Sherry or partridge in still another vinous jell.
So it was that on a crisp December day of last year I and nine other guest guns found ourselves on Baxter's 13,000-acre estate "shooting for the pot." A small army of beaters drove hundreds of pheasants high and fast over our heads and, before the day's nine drives were done, we had bagged a satisfactory 117 pheasants. Even after each gun had been presented with the traditional brace to take away for his own pot, there were still 97 left for Baxter's. But such a bag is puny compared to Baxter's yearly requirements.
Besides the whole pheasant, grouse or partridge, which they can and sell all over the world in the gourmet departments of famous department stores in many cities as well as in such fancy food shops as New York's Charles & Co. and Gristede's, Baxter's fortifies the diets of more than 80 countries with rich soups like Cock-a-Leekie, Pheasant Soup with Sherry, Wild Duck Soup with Sherry and a sustaining brew called Royal Game Soup, a can of which costs 59¢.
First marketed in 1934 from the allegedly secret recipe of a local chieftain, Baxter's royal game recipe was then so spicy that only Poona colonels could take it. Now it has been mellowed somewhat. To make 100 gallons of Royal Game Soup, Baxter's claims to need 1.17 red deer, 14 grouse, 11 pheasants, six partridges and 2½ bottles of French burgundy.
September 14, 1969
A fine fellow named George King is responsible for acquiring the necessary animals.
"I buy nearly 200 tons of venison a year to go into Royal Game Soup," King said. "That's about a third of all the venison shot in Scotland. When a stag has been shot, a gillie grallochs [eviscerates] it, slings it across a pony and brings it down perhaps 10 miles from the hill. Deer that have been dragged fetch a lower price because of the bruises," he explained. "The gillie then contacts a game dealer who drives miles up the glen to collect the beast. The land-owner gets about 27¢ a pound for the gralloched carcass, or about $30 per deer. The dealer skins it and resells it to us."
King buys some 20,000 grouse a year: "All old birds," he says, "because they have more flavor and can stand up better to our long processing." (Lift a grouse by the lower beak: if the beak breaks, the bird is a young one.)
Baxter's own shoot provides only about 2,000 pheasants of the 40,000 that are needed each year. The rest are bought. "For canning, we buy cocks only; hens are too small," says King. "What we want is a bird that will fit neatly into a can 4[1/16]" in diameter and 7[11/16]," tall, weighing about 2½ pounds.
"There's a quite predictable cycle of pheasant prices," King said. "In October, at the start of the season, they are scarce and expensive in Scotland. So we have to go to England for our game. November is all right, and we can buy for 10 or 12 bob [$1.20 to $1.35] a head; then the price goes up just before Christmas when the lairds are giving their game away to friends. Supplies become very plentiful in the last few weeks of January when the keepers are out killing off the superfluous cocks. We try to buy and freeze enough then to last us through till November." One year, Baxter's thought they might economize by hand raising pheasants and wringing their necks like poultry, but the resulting birds didn't taste good.
The firm was founded a century ago when George Baxter invested ¬£10 and opened a little grocer's shop in Fochabers. By good fortune or design he married a superior jam maker called Margaret. One of her early jam-lovers was the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, who recommended the product to big London stores, including Fortnum & Mason. The business is still a family one, and the story is that 91-year-old Mr. William Baxter visits the office daily to inspect every letter that goes out. His sons, Mr. Ian and Mr. Gordon, spend much of their time touring the globe to promote their products—fully kilted in Gordon tartan, of course.
Many Baxter products are the invention of Gordon's wife, Ena. After any meal at home, it is cozily related, her husband may demand the recipe so that he can sell a million cans or so. Baxter's Chicken Gumbo—a totally un-Scottish food—she made from a Gourmet recipe: it sold a million cans the first year. Baxter's Minestrone (which even sells well in Italy) came into being at one of Mrs. Gordon's dinner parties. But it was Gordon himself, perhaps in a moment of desperate self-assertion, who came up with the idea of whiskey-flavored marmalade. Today connoisseurs expect that the finest marmalades should be matured for five years in disused whiskey casks.