Quietly, and with as much dignity as he led his life, Bob Baxter, the sixth generation of the family to run James Baxter & Son in Morecambe Bay, Lancashire, for over 200 years passed away last Saturday at the age of 77.
His company's potted shrimps were, and I am sure will continue to be, such is the loyalty of this small firm's employees, the best I have ever tasted. For those who have not had the pleasure, potting is an old British method of preserving meat or fish in a pot sealed by a layer of fat to exclude air. Alan Davidson devotes a whole page to its history, which goes back to the 16th century, in his invaluable Oxford Companion to Food.
James Baxter's potted shrimps typically come in a small, plastic container that is perfect for an individual serving. Proud as he was of their contents, Bob Baxter was even more proud of the fact that these pots bore two Royal Warrants, the first to the late Queen Mother and the second to the Queen.
Morecambe Bay potted shrimps are a very local affair. The shrimps were initially caught in traditional 25ft boats, cleaned and boiled at sea in sea water and the potting done by the fishermen's wives. As this source of shrimps dried up, others were found by dredging along the local sands and then brought to Baxter's factory, where a small team of women cleaned, cooked and then potted the shrimps under a layer of butter.
Bob never disclosed what the secret ingredient was that made his potted shrimps so distinctive. Even when we took the tv cameras up there to film him for our food series 'Taste' in 1999 he refused to spill the beans. My own suspicion is that it was cumin, something that gave a hint of piquancy and cut through the otherwise rich combination of the shrimps and the butter.
As a first course I think they are fantastic. When asked to give my favourite five first courses for an item in the FT I had no hesitation in including Baxter's potted shrimps alongside a small, well-dressed salad, a wedge of lemon and some wholemeal toast. This is how we used to serve it in the brasserie at L'Escargot during the 1980s where it was so popular that I had to call in twice a week at Euston station to collect the packages Bob so proudly sent down. Another perhaps less classic rendition is to tip two or three pots into a frying pan and gently sauté for 3-4 minutes before serving on toast. A wonderful, quick lunch.
Over the years we have served potted shrimps as a first course more times than I would care to mention for one very good reason – there is probably no better accompaniment to a bottle of really good white burgundy or rich Chardonnay. Even the French friends we have served this to agree!
Business became more difficult for Bob recently as catches of the shrimps declined and he found that his private customers were ageing and ordering less, while selling fresh shrimps to restaurants and fish shops was restricted by the changes in the food hygiene laws.
He used to call me every so often for a chat and, as befits an excellent salesman, he would always take an order from me which would arrive punctually by overnight courier within 24 hours (they come in multiples of 20 and freeze beautifully). In our last conversation I remember mentioning that if he wanted to boost sales he should make more of the fact that his secret recipe contained some mysterious spice element as spicy food was now so popular and that this would appeal to a younger market. Bob listened like a gentleman but, like any stubborn Lancastrian traditionalist, he was never going to change.
Commercially, James Baxter & Son has chosen not to embrace the 20th century: it has neither email nor a website. But that is part of its continuing charm as it is now passes into the care of Bob's son and daughter and it will continue to be managed by the very efficient Mark Smith.
James Baxter & Son, Thornton Road, Morecambe, Lancashire LA4 5PB,