Speyside Cooperage, Craigellachie and Baxter's Highland Village, Fochabers
On our last full day in Morayshire we decided to spend the day out doing "touristy" things so after a brief discussion of possibilities we headed out to Fochabers, about fifteen minutes away from the steading, to Baxter's Highland Village.
Originally famous for their soups and canned goods Baxter's has been creating fine foods for generations and the Highland Village is all about food. The lovely little whitewashed precinct next to the modern factory houses the grocery store museum, a gift shop, a kitchen supplies store, a whisky (and other alcohol) store, a food shop selling Baxter's range of products and other fine foods as well as a function room and the restaurant, which is famous for its pancakes.
On arriving a few minutes before the 9am opening time, we opted to take the nature walk that circles the village and factory. It turned out to be quite a walk with a number of steep climbs (up wooden steps which can be either a blessing or a curse!) but enjoyable nonetheless. The walk is dotted with information placards about local flora and fauna.
Eventually we found ourselves back at our starting point and joined a few more early starters in browsing the village precinct and shops. Starting in the gift shop we then moved on to the George Baxter grocer's shop which is, in fact, the museum.
The museum details the rise of the Baxter family's fortunes in the provisions industry from very humble beginnnings to it's current successes. A combination of a video outlining the history of the company and the display of historic items related to the Baxter family was very informative and entertaining.
After this we passed through the the shop where we spent a happy half hour browsing and buying until our basket was full. Of course we couldn't leave without taking a few cans of Baxter's soup with us although we eschewed the famous Royal Game for some vegetarian offerings. (Incidentally Royal Game soup is their biggest selling soup around the world).
We browsed the other shops and bought some cider before heading for the restaurant to sample the pancakes.
Rather than being prepared out of sight in a kitchen, the pancakes are actually cooked at the counter so you can see them being made as you order. Choosing our toppings (Alex opted for apple and cinnamon with ice cream while I initially chose whisky syrup and ice cream before being tempted by the offer of chocolate cherry sauce!) we then ordered a mocha and a hazelnut latte and moved to a table to await our pancakes.
Free wi-fi was a bonus and we sipped very acceptable coffee until our pancake lunch was presented a short time later. Make no mistake these are PANCAKES - they were huge at a good 25cm across and 1cm - 2cm thick. We could quite easily have shared a pancake and still been full at the finish.
Alex was a bit surprised that the apple was chunky slices of apple rather than a sauce while mine was a lovely dollop of cherries soaked in chocolate sauce (both accompanied by a serve of ice cream of course). Mine tasted like black forest cherry cake in liquid form. Tucking in we were almost defeated by the end, and I can attest to how filling these pancakes are, but they were the best pancakes I have ever had. We were so full we had to sit for a while before we could move!
Finally, we mustered the energy and will to leave and strolled around the precinct to take a few photos before taking the steps back down to the carpark.
Heading in the general direction of Aberlour we had not quite decided where we wanted to go next. We considered going to the Walker's shortbread factory but were uninspired by the shop attached to the factory scenario and kept going. On a prior visit we had visited Dean's shortbread and decided that one factory was pretty much the same as another.
Driving on we arrived at the Speyside Cooperage in Craigellachie (pronounced Crag-ella-key) - somewhere we had definitely wanted to see before leaving the area.
The working cooperage makes and repairs barrels for the whisky industry and is an ancient craft thriving in a modern age. The barrels are still hand made from American oak with minimal machining involved and it is fascinating to watch as the coopers make each barrel from start to finish - no mass production and assembly lines here!
The tour consisted of a video, complete with visual, audio and sensory input, that detailed the work of the cooper. This was the first time I had realised that whisky goes into the barrel as a white spirit and it is the nature of the barrel that dictates its colour and flavour.
After the video we moved to the viewing gallery where we watched the coopers at work. Who would have thought that watching men at work could be so fascinating? And make no mistake, this is no display; these men are working for a living and get paid by the number of barrels they make. It is still a highly sought after trade and new apprentices are regularly taken on with sons often following father into the business. It is said to be one of the highest paid trades in Scotland.
At the end of the tour we were invited to a free tasting of whisky in the coffee shop however we learned it was Stag's Breath Liqueur so we didn't partake. I know from past experience that I cannot drink any whisky neat!
On our way again, we missed our turn and spent the afternoon driving through the Cairngorms ending up at Tomintoul. It was a beautiful day and a pleasant drive. A big bonus was passing a steep and rugged peak topped with a cluster of rocks about which I made a comment that I wouldn't like to tackle that one. Alex then informed me that it was Ben Rinnes. We had climbed it! Now we were seeing it from the other side; I had stood on that rocky peak and looked out over Tomintoul. Seeing it from this point of view made me fully appreciate what we had achieved only days before.
Enjoying the scenery we cut through the Cairngorms on minor roads to get back to Keith and then on to the steading after a very enjoyable day out. Often it's the unplanned journey that proves to be the best.
Tomorrow we leave Morayshire and it's on to Sutherland.