Ena Baxter was the public face of the Scottish gourmet soup company Baxters and a driving force behind its success at home and abroad. Her cooking abilities, boundless energy and resourcefulness – exporting cock-a-leekie soup to Japan, minestrone to Italy, haggis to the Korean Army and Scotch broth to the Middle East – helped make the brand a household name.
With the Baxter family motto "be different, be better" – and with her husband Gordon, whom she married in 1952, shortly after he had taken over as managing director while the company was still small – the business became synonymous with Scottish quality and went from 11 employees and a turnover of £44,000 in the late 1940s to over 950 employees and a £157m turnover by 2013. She became a fixture on annual lists of Britain's wealthiest women.
Exporting to more than 30 countries and with manufacturing plants in Scotland, England, Canada, Australia and Poland, the Moray-based Baxter Food Group is now known globally for its soups, sauces, chutneys, jams and marmalades. And despite over 170 takeover bids it remains family-owned.
"Scotland's soup queen", as she was described, ascribed her success to the fact that, as she said, "I can read a recipe and know what it will taste like... I can eat something and know exactly what is in it. It's a bit like making perfume, but instead of a nose I've got a mouth."
It also took sheer hard work. Her husband described their life as "bloody slavery", adding that he and Ena had "divorced about 10 times" while building the business together.
She recalled: "I have spent half my life reading recipes and the other half walking from the office to my home and back again in wellington boots," and she admitted that there had been days when she would collapse at the kitchen table and weep from sheer frustration, and nights when she would crawl to bed exhausted.
She created a range of home-made tinned soups in her kitchen using local produce based on traditional recipes, including such stalwarts as cock-a-leekie soup, chicken broth, Scotch broth and tomato soup, as well as such flavours as Baxters' Cullen Skink, smoked haddock and potato broth, said to be a favourite of Prince Philip; the company won three royal warrants, from the Queen, the Queen Mother and Gustav VI, King of Sweden.
Ena also became the cheery face of Baxters in a series of idyllic TV advertisements in which she would be found, often in the family kitchen, tending her stockpot with her homely Scottish look that married perfectly with the product.
The daughter of a farmer, Ena Robertson was born near Forgue, Aberdeenshire, and brought up in nearby Huntly. A talented painter, she was studying at Gray's School of Art in Aberdeen when the Second World War broke out.
She worked with the Ministry of Food at the Torry Research Station in Aberdeen, where she experimented with forms of fish processing, including quick-freezing, dehydration and canning, which would eventually stand her in good stead. After the war she taught art in Fochabers before meeting Gordon.
Baxters had been founded in 1868 by Gordon's grandfather, George, who borrowed £100 from family members to open a store in the village of Fochabers. His wife, Margaret, made and sold jams in earthenware jars. A factory was built in 1916. Gordon's mother Ethel added soups to the home-made range and in 1929 invented Baxters' Royal Game soup.
After marrying, Ena and Gordon moved into a small cottage next to the factory. She showed her culinary flair one evening when she adapted a recipe for chicken gumbo soup she had found in an American magazine. She had to look up okra in the dictionary and when she discovered what it was she used green beans instead.
Impressed, her husband exclaimed, "We've got to can this!" He persuaded her to give up teaching and join the business. She began developing new recipes for the firm's soup range but struggled initially. When she tried to can her gumbo recipe it came out, she said, "like a load of sludge", and after weeks of failure she was on the verge of giving up.
Then she saw Madame Curie, the Greer Garson film about Marie Curie, who had suffered repeated setbacks before discovering radium. "I left the cinema and went home determined to have one more try," she said. And that time I won." Baxters sold a million cans of gumbo soup in its first year.
With certain produce difficult to come by in north-east Scotland, she created her own vegetable patch for research purposes. Once a teacher asked one of her sons what he had eaten for lunch. "I'm not sure," he replied glumly. "I think it was one of mum's experiments."
In 1992 the couple handed the reins of the business to their daughter Audrey and set up a foundation to support good causes across the Highlands. In retirement, Ena spent a lot of time painting. The Baxters were patrons of the National Galleries of Scotland and active supporters of Duff House, Banff. Ena had a number of successful art exhibitions at Duff House and in Fochabers, raising thousands for charity. Last November her artistic career was celebrated with a charity exhibition at His Majesty's Theatre in Aberdeen.
Ena Robertson, businesswoman, cook and painter: born near Forgue, Aberdeenshire 12 August 1924; married 1952 Gordon Baxter (died 2013; two adopted children, and one adopted child deceased); died 15 January 2015.Reuse content