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Scotland's Larder: Elaine Mason from Union of Genius

Scots are a soup loving nation, so Cat Thomson chats to Elaine Mason from Union of Genius about her decade in soupmongering

Published: October 27, 2021
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Soup is the ultimate comfort food, tasty warm, filling and tasty, and Elaine Mason tells us that, "Scots are a soup loving nation."

She has been soupmonger for a decade at Union of Genius on Forrest Road, Edinburgh and her personal favourite is Cullen Skink; "which when made properly it is absolutely fabulous." 

The City of Discovery

She explains growing up in Dundee both her mum and gran always, "had a soup on the go. So I grew up with it and loving it, so the idea has always been simmering away for a long time with me."

Elaine Mason of Union of Genius. Photo: Lisa Ferguson
Elaine Mason of Union of Genius. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

After school she studied at DJCA (Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art) but left after first year, she said, "I knew I wasn't going to make it as an artist."

Rock n Roll

Instead she moved to Edinburgh then went onto study Geology at St Andrews; "it was just one of these subjects I took because I needed another science but within four weeks it totally caught me, I love it."


After university there didn't seem to be much geological work around so she ended up working in Waterstones in Dundee; "reading was my next great love."

The Soup Dragon

Then she moved to the Waterstones in Manchester which was famous store for visiting authors. It was there she got to meet her childhood hero, Oliver Postgate of Bagpuss and the Clangers fame; "it really amazing, so many memories came flooding back. I actually have a little Clanger kicking about somewhere. I absolutely adored them they were just fab."

A coincidence perhaps, that The Clangers also featured a Soup dragon character?

Scotland's Larder: Laura Sutherland of The Glasgow Pickle Co
The Clangers. Photo: Rex Features/Moviestore/Shutterstock

Eureka!

It was while she was working in Manchester that she dreamed up the idea for Union of Genius.

She said, "I was out looking for lunch because I hadn't made my own. I just wanted proper soup but I couldn't find any that I wanted to buy. This idea popped into my head. I thought I want a cafe that just does soup: brilliant soup, brilliant bread and fruit that's it."

The idea seemed simple; "I wanted to walk into somewhere and have a choice of six soups which would change everyday so there will always be something there I wanted to eat. It sort of blossomed in my head.”

It wasn't till years later when she began to seriously think, " hang on a minute I wonder if I could make this work?"

A dozen from Scotland's larder
Elaine Mason Union of Genius. Photo: LIsa Ferguson
Elaine Mason Union of Genius. Photo: LIsa Ferguson

She then went to work for the British Geological Survey in Nottingham; she explains "I was flicking through a copy of New Scientist and they were looking for Head of Sales, they needed someone with a geological background but who knew that book trade, that job had my name on it."

Edinburgh

Having met her academic husband, Bruce and the couple moved to Edinburgh, a place they both wanted to live.

Elaine was able to transfer and work for the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh but after a while she wanted a change.

She felt like it was is the right time to explore her soup emporium idea; "I decided I really wanted to do this and if I didn't do it now, then I would have to put the idea away and never think about it again. It had really been burning a bit of a hole and I wanted to see if I could do it."

Scotland's Larder: Neil Forbes chef director of Cafe St Honorė, and purveyor of puds

Research & Development

Elaine Mason Union of Genius.
Union of Genius. Photo: Brendan McNeill

To research her market, properly she offered free lunch to her husband’s colleagues at the university; "in return for their brutally honest feedback. I needed to find out if my cooking was good enough to earn a living."

Fortunately her soup went down a storm she said, "the feedback I got was absolutely brilliant." The questionnaires even helped her choose which bread she should buy, everyone preferred Dough Re Mi's, which she still uses today.

Union of Genius cafe at 8 Forrest Road. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Location, location, location

She then needed to find a location for her dream soup kitchen, and discovered the site on Forrest road which was an ideal; "it was student central, I needed them and office workers looking for a quick healthy lunch."

Luckily she and the landlady got on famously; "she took a bit of chance, as I had never owned my own business before or a cafe but she liked the business plan."

The Union of Genius opened in 2011, providing the best soup using locally sourced, seasonal ingredients with a focus on being environmentally friendly.

Union of Genius. Photo: Brendan McNeill

The ethos is simple, each soup is made from scratch in small batches which are chilled for 12 hours to let the flavours develop,

Winning formula

There are a choice of six different soups, usually two meat and the rest are mainly vegan or vegetarian.

Over time the menu has expanded to include a chicken and a vegan chilli. "These days more people are interested in eating vegan diet so we have expanded the number of vegan offerings and our salads are only vegan," she said.

She also invented a genius soup formula (q+r)*p^h=y
q: top quality ingredients
r: imaginative recipes
p: our passion for flavours
h: every soup handmade, tasted and tweaked before it leaves the kitchen
y = your lovely lunch

Union of Genius. Photo: Brendan McNeill

Although she admits that soup making isn't an exact science adding; "you can bend and twist soup recipes and you can make it go in any direction you want."

Business values

She did have a pretty strong idea about how to run the business; "a lot of things we do now, we did them at the start."

She made a point of always using compostable packaging and instead of having a loyalty scheme for purchases she started a scheme called Full circle to encourage customers to bring back the rubbish to prevent it going into landfill, she said "people have really gone for it and that is really wonderful."

She adds, "It is really important to me personally to minimise our impact, I feel businesses have a responsibility for the rubbish they produce and should pay back in to the local community." 

Soup Kitchen

Elaine Mason Union of Genius. Photo: LIsa Ferguson
Union of Genius. Photo: LIsa Ferguson

So Union of Genius also supply the Bethany care van with 150 litres of soup every month.

That began in 2013 when she needed a larger industrial production kitchen to supply soup wholesale to other cafes; they supply the Söderberg cafes, Festival theatre as well as other small independents.

She felt strongly about supporting the Bethany care van, " the prospect of with being without a meal or a home, is such a fundamental thing that we take for granted.

It just really rings a bell with me." The care van goes out every night of the year around Edinburgh city centre with hot soup and drinks on board and she has seen the work they do at first hand, they supply "a little bit of comfort. It is good work and I'm really glad to be part of it."

Union of Genius. Photo: Brendan McNeill

Environmental concerns

They also have two eco electric cargo bikes that move soup around the city, she said, "it is a visible presence for the business and that is how our wholesale soup is delivered."

That is no mean feat, because at the pre pandemic peak they were making 1600 litres a week with an extra 100 kg of chillies.

However she tells us that; "Covid has had a huge effect on what we do, Every business has taken a beating in a different way and at different times but my god what a thing to live through."

During lockdown they had to closed the business completely; "all our kitchen orders were cancelled over the course of a fortnight.

The catering van which was situated in George Square was taken off the road, the cafe shut and all staff were on furlough." 

Union of Genius
Union of Genius soup van which can be found in George Square. Union of Genius. Photo: Brendan McNeill

Elaine lasted about three weeks sitting doing nothing, and was climbing the walls, so she reopened the kitchen and started direct home deliveries instead.

Home delivery

Although she was only cooking soup on a small scale, she plans for that to continue that for as long as there is a demand; "it just kept us ticking over."

They restarted serving lunch from the mobile van and reopened the Forrest Road cafe as soon as they were allowed; "everything was done safely. We are still picking up the pieces we are getting busier but we are still not back to where we were in 2019 but it is a huge relief."

Savour the flavour

She loves challenging peoples taste buds with soups, "I like learning about different ingredients and soup is a great medium for that.

Different countries have unique flavours, and it is great to bring those flavours to people."

But there are always some safe choices on the menu like minestrone or lentil as well as some leftfield choices.

Soup has changed her life for the better with the past ten years flying by, she said "I have a hard job remembering that I ever did anything else. It is an all encompassing part of my life, I just flipping love the stuff.

Elaine Mason of Union of Genius. Photo: Lisa Ferguson
Elaine Mason of Union of Genius. Photo: Lisa Ferguson

Union of Genius

8 Forrest Rd
Edinburgh
EH1 2QN


0131 226 4436

The soup van: Monday to Friday, 11:30-14:30 George Square

Home delivery every Thursday across Edinburgh

Catriona is based in the Scottish Borders and works as part of the audiovisual team at the Scotsman but she reviews restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writes for Scotsman Food and Drink in her spare time.

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