FOOD & DRINK / British Classics: Scotland takes the biscuit: Scottish Shortbread: It's produced by the silvery Spey and sold by the world's top food halls. Michael Bateman reports on a very Caledonian success story

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The Independent Culture
OF BRITISH foods known abroad, few are as respected as Scottish shortbread. And no shortbread as renowned as that of Walkers of Aberlour, a company festooned with gold medals from exhibitions around the world. Its fancy tartan gift tins decorate the boutique corners of the world's top food halls, from Bloomingdale's in New York and Neiman Marcus in Dallas to Harrods, Harvey Nichols and Fortnum & Mason in London and Fauchon in Paris.

Why shortbread should be claimed as a Scottish treasure is a mystery. Its very Scottishness is about the only exclusively Scottish ingredient. The finely-milled biscuit flour comes from England, along with sugar from English sugar beet. The rich creamery butter, which gives Walkers' shortbread its unctuous richness, is from England and Ireland as often as Scotland.

And the recipe is by no means traditionally Scottish, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the classic sable, a sweet biscuit pastry from the French patissier's repertoire. There's no evidence, though, that it was born of the Auld Alliance, when Mary, Queen of Scots, staffed her kitchens with French chefs.

Sable means sandy, an appropriate description of the texture of shortbread. Scottish shortbread is sold in France as Sable pur beurre, though they have their own version, the Gallette Bretonne. The Dutch actually go all the way and call them sand-cookies, Zandkoekjes.

So at least the name shortbread is Scottish? 'The name is a bit of a mystery,' says James Walker, a director of the company. 'But the Scots used the word bread to describe an oat biscuit, an oatbread, cooked on a bakestone or girdle.' It becomes 'short' when you add fat or shortening, which also makes it richer. Walkers is a family firm, and today is run by three grandchildren of the founder, Joseph, who started a village bakery in the 19th century. Marjorie and Joseph manage the factory, James is marketing director.

Their large, modern factory is tucked into a forest of firs outside the pretty village of Aberlour, deep in the heart of the Highlands, beside the silvery Spey which feeds no fewer than 85 of the top 100 Scottish whisky distillers. Walkers employs 600 people, including most of the village of Aberlour. 'We have excellent industrial relations,' James says drily. 'They need us, and we need them.'

Walkers shortbread is made here very much as it has been for 100 years, when grandfather produced it as an extra line to the main business of bread and cakes. The method is basically the way any good Scottish cook might bake it at home: you blend a pound of flour, half a pound of salted butter, quarter of a pound of caster sugar, press it together lightly, and bake in a low oven for 30 to 45 minutes until it is pale gold.

The difference is in volume; fork-lift trucks unload blue-wrapped bales of butter in 56lb packs and one-ton sacks of sugar, while flour is stored in silos. In place of a mixing bowl a piece of antique steel machinery like an industrial concrete mixer stirs the ingredients very slowly.

Metal rollers, not hands, flatten the shortbread, kibblers break it into manageable pieces, and rotary moulders embedded with metal dies cut out the various shapes. And a 30-yard oven moves the shortbread through on a metal conveyor belt at a yard a minute, yielding up the crunchy results half an hour later.

The less you do to shortbread, the better. But when it comes to packaging, you can lay on the Scottishness with a trowel. The packets and boxes and tins are patterned in yards of ruby red tartan (that of the Grants, the local clan).

The tartan in place, you may emboss it with scenes from Scottish history, rendered in the Rabbie McNaff style of Victorian sentimentality. The Walkers have more or less turned Prince Charlie and Flora Macdonald into trademarks, and a painting of the two holding hands features prominently in their advertising and display.

Some boxes will have been 'signed' by Joseph Walker, as a guarantee of purity and quality. In the boardroom at Walkers there are pictures of grandfather Joseph at 21 as a one-horse baker, and ten years later as a two-horse baker with two delivery carts. The firm has been doubling in size steadily ever since.

By the time the third generation came into the business, Walkers was a relatively small fish in the big pond of biscuits. Per capita, Britons are the biggest biscuit eaters in the world (Tesco stocks 200 varieties). The turning point in the Walkers fortunes came 30 years ago.

'The price of butter suddenly rocketed,' James explains. 'Most of the large companies switched to butter substitutes to keep the price down; that meant they had to lower quality. We realised that it would be tremendously expensive to maintain quality, but took a long-term view that there was a market there for quality rather than price.'

At that time shortbread represented 2 per cent of their turnover. Today, however, it represents more than half their business. 'What was initially a big problem turned out to be to our advantage. We built up a niche market.'

This was the cue for James to indulge his fanatical zeal for marketing. He took up his pen to compose moving essays for the company brochures. 'The inspiration for Walkers biscuits,' he writes, 'stems from the crisp clean air, the crystal clear water, and the sheer beauty of the bakery's surroundings in Speyside.'

Keeping as straight a face as possible, James contrives to link his grandfather's credentials with those of Freud, Rontgen, Marconi and the Wright Brothers.

'Joseph Walker,' writes James, 'son of the superintendent of municipal parks in Aberdeen, founded a bakery in the year 1898. It was certainly a good time for enterprising men. Marconi was perfecting his wireless. Rontgen had come up with X-rays. Freud had recently published his first work on psychoanalysis, the brothers Wright would soon get the heavier-than-air machine off the ground . . . not to be left out, 21-year-old Joseph set about making his shortbread and oatcakes the best the world has ever tasted.'

Writing stuff like that is one thing, selling shortbread is another. James took his shortbread to Germany, where the buyer of the leading chain of food halls laughed in his face. 'The product is fine. If you are still in Germany in 10 years' time,' he said, 'come back and see me.' The Germans assumed he had the British Disease - big on promises, short on delivery. Within 18 months, however, James had his product on their shelves, and the company has gone on to win a number of export and business awards.

Thirty years later, Walkers has proved there is a substantial market for real, buttery shortbread, rather than a compromise made with margarine and vegetable oil.

So the world continues to beat a path to the firm's door. The Prince of Wales was a recent visitor; he has chosen Walkers to manufacture his Duchy Originals, very agreeable biscuits made with organic oats grown on his various Highgrove farms.

The Walkers story proves that you don't always have to compromise to succeed, even in the British food market. 'Well,' says James righteously, 'our parents disciplined us to believe that quality is God.' And, no doubt, that Scottishness is next to Godliness.-

(Photograph omitted)