Dordogne village welcomes new cheese and wine bar
Graham Welch and Damon Biddlecombe moved to Belvès in the heart of Périgord Noir to launch Planches et Plonk
When did you first get the idea for Planches et Plonk?
Cheese and wine are our passion, so that was our starting point. Plus, we wanted to move to south-west France and we knew we liked dealing with people. Combining all of that in a cheese and wine bar seemed the perfect solution.
We created a seven-year plan to do it. Then, after the Brexit vote, we brought forward moving to France – but we didn’t move to Dordogne initially. Instead, we moved to Lille, as Damon landed a job there and I could commute back and forward to London easily enough via the Eurostar.
The cheese and wine bars we saw there gave us further encouragement to take the leap and introduce rural France to the concept.
Why did you choose Belvès as the location?
We came property hunting in winter last year, as we deliberately wanted to see potential villages at their worst. We first came to Belvès one rainy January day and were enchanted by it straight away. It’s officially one of France’s most beautiful villages, so we knew it would constantly attract visitors, which is important. Crucial to our decision was that, despite the rain, there were people out and about that winter’s day – passing trade is so important!
How long did it take you to find the perfect property?
We came back several times over a couple of months that winter. In the end it came down to the property in Belvès and another one in a village on the Lot. The latter was larger and needed almost no work doing to it but the village was much quieter.
In Belvès, the property we were viewing was opposite a popular bistro and a few doors down from a busy bar and a few other restaurants. Our arrival would help cement the area’s reputation as a destination for a drink and a meal. So, in the end, we had to choose between a great space and a great place. It proved an easy decision.
Did you have to carry out any renovations?
Yes, we needed to have new plumbing and electrics installed for a start off. Then we opened up the ground floor to create a much larger space for the bar, with three distinct areas – a seating area, a lounge and an open-plan kitchen. The property had been a haberdashery before, so only the front room had been used as commercial space. We also reconfigured the top two floors – to create an apartment for us on the first floor and two en-suite chambres d’hôtes on the second.
We were lucky in that we were introduced to a neighbour who is a builder and who also oversaw all the tradespeople for us. We had imagined we could do that from our home in Lille – 800km away – but that was difficult and became absolutely impossible during lockdown.
What sets Planches et Plonk apart from other bars and restaurants in the area?
We bring something different to the village. We offer platters – or planches – of cheese and charcuterie and a large range of wines, almost all of which are available by the glass. Nobody else here is doing that.
We also offer wine tasting events, where we teach people how to taste wine like professionals and run food and wine pairing classes. They give people a reason to get up off the sofa and come out for the evening. All our customers tell us how stylish the place is too!
What are its specialities and bestsellers so far?
The platters have had a great reception. We often hear people gasp when we bring one out to them – and one table of people even clapped when they saw theirs. As for the wines, the local wines sold very well over the summer when the tourists were here. They were after something from the region. Now we’re into autumn, local people seem increasingly to be seeking out wines from further afield in France.
How do you choose which wines and cheeses to put on the menu?
I took the Level 3 course from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, which is like an A Level in wine, and followed it up with a French Wine Scholar qualification. With those under my belt, I feel confident in my knowledge of French wines. I set about creating a wine list that customers would find approachable. It’s broken down into light, medium and heavy reds and whites – each with short tasting notes – so you don’t have to be an expert to order a wine you’ll like. Of course, there are rosés, sparkling wines and spirits too.
Damon spent years learning about cheese – and even learned how to make cheese, thanks to the Sussex Cheese School. He can put together a varied selection of cheeses, from a creamy truffle-filled Brie to a salty 24-month-old Comté. There’s something on there for all tastes – and the list changes every few days.
Was it daunting launching the business in such uncertain times?
Our timing could certainly have been better! We lost a lot of preparation time because of confinement and ended up moving to Belvès several months later than originally planned. As a result, we opened at the end of July, rather than in spring. Opening during the very height of season was a baptism of fire but we managed it well. We figure if we can make a success of things this year, we’ll be alright in the future.
What has the reaction been like so far?
Hugely positive. I think there were a few raised eyebrows when people heard that two Brits would be bringing French wine to the French, but ultimately, it comes down to passion and knowledge. We have those by the bucketload, so the locals have taken us to their hearts. We seem to have become a destination for couples seeking a romantic evening out, groups of friends meeting up and people who don’t want a traditional three-course meal. The neighbouring businesses have welcomed us too. They understand that the more places to eat and drink a village has, the more it attracts people from the wider area.
How have you furnished the guest bedrooms?
We’ve used soft grey-beiges for the walls and repeated that in the furnishings, with mustard to add a little pizzazz. We found some beautiful mustard bed linen in the sales in Lille, which guests have all said how much they liked.
Given that we offer bed and breakfast, we assume people won’t stay with us for a fortnight at a time, so we’ve used an old Art Deco steamer trunk as the wardrobe in one of the rooms. There’s enough space in it for a few nights’ luggage and it’s proved quite a talking point.
What have you learnt since becoming hosts of a chambres d’hotes?
What has surprised us is that French travellers are happy simply to turn up in a place and then look for somewhere to stay. Sometimes the word just passes down the street from one B&B to the next that there are people after a room for the night.
Overseas visitors, on the other hand, book ahead, because, of course, they have to plan their travel.
What are your hopes and plans for next year?
One of the things we planned to do was to offer cheese-and-wine themed gourmet weekends, which will appeal to international guests. Hopefully, when travel restrictions are eased, we’ll be able to develop that idea. We think it’ll be huge fun for them – and, hopefully, for us too.
What advice would you give someone thinking of following in your footsteps?
Two things spring to mind. The first is to be prepared to work very long days, especially during the height of the season. You’ll live and breathe your business during the summer months.
The second is to learn French so you can speak it to a good standard. If you can’t speak the language, you’re restricting your client base and you’ll need local support to survive the winter months. We estimate that 80% of our clients are French. Many of them simply wouldn’t feel able to come if we didn’t speak their language.
Planches et Plonk also runs virtual wine tastings and is offering a take-away service so you can enjoy its planches and wine in the comfort of your own home. There is free delivery on all orders within Belvès and on orders of €30 or more within a radius of 20km. Collection is also available.
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