After a break due to Covid, the Wigtown Book Festival is back (and two days longer than usual), running from September 22 to October 4, with guests including Janey Godley, Denise Mina, Alexander McCall Smith and Val McDermid.
In between events, these authors, not to mention all the bookworms who descend on this Dumfries and Galloway town, will have somewhere new to refuel.
Restaurant with rooms, The Plough, is scheduled to open just a few days before the event kicks off.
It’s owned by 30-year-old chef, Beth Webb, along with her husband, Nick Webb, a 30-year-old GP, with help from their friend, Helen Dewey, 35, who will be running the front of house.
Beth was furloughed then made redundant from her job as a pastry chef at a Dumfries and Galloway fine-dining restaurant in the summer of 2020, during lockdown. After that, she set up an artisan afternoon tea delivery business, B on the Road. Its offerings included tarts, scones and cakes, such as roast strawberry choux pastries and boxes of pastel-coloured macarons in flavours including gooseberry and cranachan.
However, this enterprise was just a stepping stone to her own restaurant.
“I got the bug for running my own business and wanted a larger venture”, says Beth, who is based in Newton Stewart after selling her house in Lockerbie to help fund the project. “In June I found out the old Craft Hotel in Wigtown was looking for a tenant so I took the leap. It’s a beautiful old building packed with features and we are aiming for a contemporary feel that compliments its age. There's something quite exciting about being a redundant chef who’s bringing life back to an old building as the hospitality sector looks to recover from the chaos of the last 18 months”.
As the century old inn is undergoing a complete renovation, and has only just had electricity restored, they'll be opening in stages, with the wine bar and beer garden opening to the public on September 18. In preparation, they’ve restored the original Art Deco stained glass advertising above the bar, which, in shades of amber, spells out ACTON PRESERVES CANDIED PEELS. Apart from wine, this space will offer a selection of whisky and locally produced beers and ales. There will also be cheese and charcuterie boards and vegetable sharing platters featuring produce from the walled garden that’s part of the farm where Beth and Nick currently rent a cottage.
“To start with, I'm keeping the menu simple, focusing on quality ingredients to lift the dishes”, says Beth. “As with many hospitality businesses, it’s proving difficult to find chefs, so the menu is being built around what I can do by myself without burning out. I'm putting on a short food list for the Wigtown Book Festival which will include venison ragu, Barnbarroch organic beef, and beetroot curry and root vegetable tagine, with most of the veg coming from our kitchen garden. In the past, I've mainly worked as a pastry chef so I'm planning an exciting dessert menu and afternoon tea at the weekends, including my signature macarons. I hope to build the menu and lift the standard as I am able to recruit and train staff”.
The more formal restaurant - offering something smarter in an area that’s well serviced when it comes to casual cafes - will open at the end of October, and the en-suite rooms and some self-catering accommodation will be available at The Plough by March 2022.
There’s plenty more work to do, especially when it comes to sourcing local produce. This is a hurdle that Beth had already encountered, when running her afternoon tea business. She’s been working determinedly to overcome this, as her restaurant concept is pitched as “a celebration of the seasonal food of Galloway” and one of her first jobs was policy manager for a food and farming NGO. She’s attempted to track down sustainably-sourced seafood that’s landed nearby - “don’t get me started on how difficult that is!” - and she’s had to work with local farmers and a butcher to help her source meat.
“As a chef, I want to know what farm the animal came from, what sort of system was used and the diet the animals have had. All of this impacts flavour and the environmental sustainability of producing meat”, says Beth, who also has hives and an orchard in her walled garden.
Among other things, this chef has managed to organise a supply of beef and lamb, raised on The Machars in Dumfries and Galloway, and ready in time for the Wigtown Book Festival.
“Sourcing food from Wigtownshire is surprisingly difficult”, she says, before explaining the system of “asset stripping”.
“As the food chain has been dominated by supermarkets and large buyers, most food processing facilities have closed in the area and centralised. By the time products are taken out of the region for processing, it's too expensive for most small scale producers to get them back, and even harder to determine the provenance of products coming back in. This also results in more intermediaries taking a cut, and less of a proportion of profits going back to farmers. I'm hoping that my restaurant will have the buying power to work with local farmers and butchers to start getting around these barriers to sourcing locally, and knowing exactly what farm the products I use are coming from”.
30 South Main Street, Wigtown, Instagram @the.plough.wigtown