Today is Hallowe’en, but instead of a scary story, I’ve got an uplifting one. Just over a year ago, Damon Biddlecombe and Graham Welch opened Planches et Plonk, a cheese-and-wine bar in the plus beau village of Belvès in the Dordogne (celebrating Year 1 above). It’s been a runaway success, and Damon and Graham’s story has been featured on the popular UK TV series ‘A New Life in the Sun’. What’s more, they did all this during a pandemic, living proof of turning a problem into an opportunity.
I’ve known Graham virtually for several years, since he used to write a life in France blog, too. The blog is no more, which is hardly a surprise, since Graham has plenty on his plate. In view of that, I’m hugely grateful to him for taking time out of his hectic schedule to answer my questions.
Below, as well as reading about Damon and Graham’s inspiring story, you’ll find out where the word ‘plonk’ originated and discover more about their plans for Planches et Plonk. And their B&B is definitely top of my wishlist of places to stay. I’m very keen to meet this dynamic duo at last.
While I’m there, I shall sample their planches (lit. boards). Just looking at this cheese and charcuterie planche is making my mouth water!
You’ll find all of Planches et Plonk’s contact details at the end.
On y va.
Life on La Lune: Thank you so much for answering my questions, Graham. What led you to move to France, and how long have you lived here?
Graham: We’d been coming to France for many years on holiday and, after a while, we began to wonder if we could make a life for ourselves here. We came up with a long-term plan to start over.
Then came the Brexit vote in 2016. The only good thing I can find to say about that is that it forced our hand, encouraging us to make the move. We moved to Lille within a year, which means we’ve now been here for more than four years.
Having lived in the bustling city of Lille, why choose the Dordogne and why Belvès in particular?
Lille was only ever intended as a stepping stone for us. It was the south west of France – the Dordogne, Lot and Lot-et-Garonne départements in particular – that we’d fallen in love with and this was where we wanted to be.
We came property hunting one January and February, to see places at their very worst. Belvès is officially classed as one of France’s most beautiful villages, and we figured that status would help attract visitors all year round.
As we pulled into the village, its beauty took our breath away, even in the rain.
What’s more, the property we’d arranged to see was in a perfect location on the pedestrianised high street, with a restaurant opposite and another bar close by. With the addition of our cheese-and-wine bar, it would become a quartier where people would know they could always find something to eat or drink.
Life on La Lune: Always a good idea to check out these places outside the sunny summer months, which lull one into thinking the weather is always like that here…
Tell us a bit about the building, which has some history behind it. I understand you had to do quite a bit of work to it. How did you manage that from Lille?
Our home is a point of interest for visitors to Belvès, as it served as the gateway – known as le Grand Portail Peint – into the village in the 13th century.
We’ve renovated the place from top to bottom. We weren’t looking for a project but the layout worked for what we had in mind – it allowed a bar/restaurant on the ground floor and B&B rooms upstairs, as well as accommodation for us.
We were lucky in that we found a builder to oversee the project for us. He owns a house two doors away from us, so he had an interest in doing a good job!
He handled all the tradespeople for us. We soon realised we could never have done that from Lille, 800km away, especially during lockdown.
Life on La Lune: I love the laid back modern style teamed with the simple stone walls and the traditional café tables outside.
We know how important it is to have the right qualifications in France. What qualifications did you need, or what did you feel necessary, in order to open Planches et Plonk?
We already knew a lot about wine and cheese but we wanted to take some formal training, so that we could talk to customers with confidence and authority.
I took the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 3 qualification. The WSET is the world’s leading provider of globally recognised education and qualifications in wines and spirits. (Level 4 is sommelier level and Level 5 is Master of Wine.)
I then went on to do a specialism in French wines through the French Wine Scholar programme.
Meanwhile Damon spent time learning about all the French AOP [Appellation d’Origine Protégée] cheeses and took training with the Sussex Cheese School, based at England’s renowned High Weald Dairy, on how to make cheese.
Planches et Plonk is a fantastic name! How do you explain plonk to the locals?
Plonk isn’t a word that French people know so it’s often a great opener for a conversation. They like the link with the history of WW1, when British soldiers were in the north of France and tried vin blanc – or plonk, as they called it – for the first time.
For us, it’s a little nod to our British roots. We’ve deliberately stayed French with everything else, though, from the menus to the posters on display.
Life on La Lune: I never knew the origin of ‘plonk’. Thanks for that, Graham.
You opened Planches et Plonk during a pandemic. What challenges did that present, and how have you overcome them?
Our timing could certainly have been better!
That said, people couldn’t travel easily last year, which meant that we had French customers from day one. We’re told we might well have had to wait much longer for the locals to come in under ordinary circumstances.
When the second lockdown was introduced at the end of October 2020 and we had to shut the bar for six months, we operated as a wine shop to make ends meet. That showed some real potential, so when we were offered a shop space on the village’s central square, we jumped at it.
That’s how our cave à vins, Plonk et Plus, came about – it’s amazing to think we’ve opened two businesses during a pandemic.
There’s a lot of work and energy involved in running a cheese-and-wine bar, a wine shop, a B&B and wine-tasting events (have I missed anything out?). Which of you focuses on what aspects of the business, and how much outside support do you rely on?
We have found it beneficial to split the responsibilities – it means we don’t miss anything or do the work twice.
Damon focuses on the food side of things and everything related to the guest rooms, including bookings. I do the front of house and lead on anything related to wine, including the shop, and on our communications, such as our social media presence.
This summer we took on a bilingual woman to help us in the bar and with some of the cleaning. She made a huge difference – having her there sped up preparation time and allowed us to spend more time with customers.
With hindsight (always a wonderful thing), what might you have done differently?
I would have liked to have had an accountant in place sooner. All the ones we approached in the run up to opening turned us down – it was during the lockdown, after all. We have one now and all’s good, but we probably made some silly mistakes during the set up.
What do you do in your “spare” time? Do you get much opportunity to benefit yourselves from where you live?
During the summer, we work 17 hours a day, seven days a week, so there isn’t much time for anything else. Now that we’re into autumn and the pace is slower, we’re taking time out to visit some of the local châteaux and to try out some good restaurants in the area.
We’ve also done a couple of wine-tasting trips, one to the Languedoc and one to the Loire valley. Strictly speaking, they’re work, but they’re also very much pleasure.
What’s next for Planches et Plonk?
We’ve begun to run more wine-tasting evenings, particularly private events, where we go into people’s homes and teach groups of six or more how to taste wine like professionals. We enjoy those and the participants find them a fun way to gain extra skills.
We’re also working with a local wedding planner, with a view to offering something similar for wedding parties next summer.
What’s the most important piece of advice you would give someone thinking of starting a hospitality business in France?
To learn the language is the single most important tip we’d give anyone looking to open a bar or restaurant. Get your French up to a level where you can hold a conversation with your customers and answer their questions confidently.
If you don’t, you’ll limit your clientele. That may not be a problem in high season, but it could cost you dearly over the winter months.
Life on La Lune: This is so true, particularly of your business, but also of life in France in general. That would be my first piece of advice to anyone moving to France.
It’s been so interesting to read about your experiences, Graham. Merci infiniment. Wishing you and Damon continued and well deserved success with Planches et Plonk and with your plans going forward. And à bientôt, I hope.
Planches et Plonk 34 Rue Jacques Manchotte 24170 Belvès Tel: 05 53 28 21 70 Website Facebook Instagram
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Copyright © Life on La Lune, Damon Biddlecombe and Graham Welch, 2021. All rights reserved.