The cookbook writer, food stylist and shopkeeper splits her time between her Borders cottage and Elliott’s, her expanding food and homewares emporium in Edinburgh
Photography Neale Smith
Art direction Gillian Welsh
Words Catherine Coyle
Jess Elliott Dennison is laughing. She’s recalling the story her mum always tells about the time the Hovis truck drove down their street and a bag of flour fell off the back. “She claims that bag of flour lasted forever – she cobbled together so much from it!” It’s a family tale but it also represents the ‘make do and mend’ spirit, together with a fearless entrepreneurial edge, that Jess grew up around. Her parents were not from a creative background (in fact, they worked in software development in 1980s London, where the only thing more prominent than the shoulder pads was the stress levels), but they always encouraged risk-tasking and living life without regrets. And their daughter has made that philosophy her own, opening Elliott’s general store and café-kitchen in Edinburgh, and penning her own cookbooks, the third of which, Lazy Baking, has just been published.
The 32-year-old cook, baker, stylist, writer, business owner and soon-to-be mum is the embodiment of her parents’ go-getting attitude. It’s no surprise to hear she’s finding it difficult to slow down as she approaches the end of her third trimester. “I’ve been hugely influenced by my mum and dad – they are free spirits,” she smiles. “They’re incredibly supportive and have always encouraged me and my older sister to take chances and learn from the experience, rather than regret not acting on our ideas.”
When Jess was 15, the family decided to leave London behind. “My parents were sick of the rat race, so they asked us where were wanted to live, France or the Borders. We all said France but my mum, Claire, is the boss and she wanted to go home to Scotland.” The transition was a massive culture shock; adapting to a slow, quiet, uneventful way of life saw Jess spending time at home – in the kitchen, mainly – with her mum. But, always one to seek out the possibilities in life, she soon embraced the lifestyle, learning how to bake and cook from her mum. It was an ad hoc, no recipe, ‘winging it’ kind of schooling but it shaped the sort of life and indeed the ethos that she continues to live by.
“My mum has always been ahead of her time. She was baking sourdough loaves for our packed lunches, fermenting veg and making jam long before it was trendy. For her, it was just about using what was around her, what would save money. It comes from a really genuine place,” says Jess.
“Ours was always a house where people dropped in and neighbours stopped by, and the table was always full. She stretched food so everyone had a feast. It’s why I’m a feeder!”
Jess travelled, took a business degree in Edinburgh (and did an exchange programme with a business school in Bangkok) before starting out in marketing. But she always had ideas bubbling behind the scenes. She began working in London for Jamie Oliver in the kind of fast-paced, exciting and creative environment that every graduate dreams of. “My team worked on everything – interacting with the art department, on books, TV shows and ad campaigns, as well as restaurants and exports.” It introduced Jess to food styling and, stepping out on her own in London and Australia, she carved out a successful career for herself that combined her passion for cooking with the knowledge she’d accumulated from learning in these dynamic teams. “It was intense and exciting,” she recalls. “Hard work, yes, but lots of fun. I did get to a point where I had to make a decision, though.”
She was conscious of how much waste she was witnessing, particularly on commercial projects, and ultimately she realised she was just craving a room full of people to feed, in the same vein as her mother has done throughout her childhood. So Jess and her husband Philip began searching for suitable premises in Edinburgh. “The ‘flat white and cake’ phenomenon was taking off, but in Edinburgh you could only really get that or the other end of the scale, namely fine dining,” she recalls. “I wanted to set up the kind of neighbourhood shop that had a real community feel, with my kind of relaxed, delicious food.”
She found exactly what she was looking for, with lots of light and space for the personalised look she favoured, on Sciennes Road, a largely residential street in Marchmont. She roped in friends for painting parties, and her parents lent a hand too, building the kitchen from scratch and helping with everything from collecting supplies to book-keeping and cooking shifts. Elliott’s opened its doors in 2018, and the business, which she runs with her creative partner Phillippa Henley (Jess’s self-confessed ‘work wife’), has rapidly evolved into a reliable neighbourhood destination spot that feels as if it has always been there. The kitchen serves up a seasonal weekly menu of homemade dishes, while the general store stocks Elliott’s own products as well as a curated selection of foodie treats and beautifully designed classics. There’s also a space that, in the coming year, will host workshops and supper clubs, with experts and enthusiasts sharing their knowledge on wine, foraging, fermenting, home cooking and more.
When Jess does get some downtime, it’s spent at home with Philip at their 120-year-old cottage that sits along an old lane in a Borders village. “With the help of our brilliant joiner, we’re doing our best to bring back its soul, replacing the flooring with reclaimed wood and fitting an old pine kitchen that’s sympathetic to the cottage’s style and age. We’ve exposed the original bricks behind what would have been the fireplace in the living room but opted for a slightly more modern woodburning stove – we’ve discovered that old cottages can get very cold!”
Jess got inventive with her renovations: “I see the walls as a thing of beauty and history, so rather than trying to make them smooth and modern, I’ve just painted over them with tonal period colours. I’ve picked paints from Little Greene and Mylands to suit the property’s age, including one called Roman Plaster, a soft grey with the tiniest hint of purple in it, for the living room, which is my nod to the village’s Roman history. I went to the extremes of researching the exact grey they used for the servants’ quarters kitchen on the set of Downton Abbey. That’s really sad, isn’t it!”
The couple share an appreciation for the quieter, simpler side of life. The idyllic garden is at the top of the lane, where Philip, a conservationist, grows an abundance of fruit and vegetables that’s harvested for Elliott’s. “We were very lucky to inherit mature blackcurrant and gooseberry bushes, so at the end of every summer we spend hours picking all the fruit, then I turn it into jam for sale at Elliott’s. We also grow lots of beautiful flowering oregano, fennel, courgettes, kale, potatoes and beetroot.
“Nothing makes me happier than taking a cup of tea into the garden, picking what we need for dinner and then heading back to the kitchen to create something simple. Quite often it’s fresh pasta with lots of the garden vegetables braised down in garlic, oregano and white wine.”
She makes use of everything; even the blackcurrant leaves flavour custards, cordials and ice-creams. With no TV in the house, most of their time is spent in the kitchen, listening to the radio, cooking and eating, just as her parents did. This year, the first as new parents themselves, will be extra special but still in keeping with the homemade, pared-back, relaxed atmosphere they’ve come to love. “Every year, Philip and I do a four-hour Christmas Eve walk around the Mertoun estate, past Maxton church and the tiny village we got married in. Then it’s over to his parents to watch an old recording of Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas with a Bendicks mint.”
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