“You’d better be quick, there might not be much left.”
Those aren’t the words you want to hear when you’re walking towards the Eviedale Bistro & Bakehouse. Sure enough, a quick glance inside at the near-bare racks of the honesty shop and it’s back out into the August sunshine empty handed.
Luckily, it’s not a wasted trip as we’re also here to speak to Philippa Porritt, who along with her partner Ian, has been keeping Orcadians well fed with delicious pizzas, breads and much more over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During the first lockdown we had a lot of people saying we were a bit of a ‘port in the storm’,” says Philippa. “It was such an alien situation. I think folk just wanted something to look forward to and some just booked in for a takeaway pizza every week. It was maybe just a hint of normality in the midst of a strange, unsettling experience.”
Eviedale’s sourdough wood-fired pizzas became legendary locally over lockdown. They had already been offering takeaways during the bistro’s normal opening hours pre-pandemic, so a quick pivot to full-time takeaways seemed like a sensible option. But it still left the issue of social distancing to contend with.
“Our answer was to run things as a drive-thru,” laughs Philippa, as she thinks back to those hectic days in March 2020. “Our pizza peel measures exactly two metres, so we worked out a system of taking orders via social media, having timed collections and passing the pizzas out to people in their cars on the peel. It just worked really well.”
It’s a mark of the ingenuity that has become synonymous with the small Eviedale team. It’s no surprise to learn that Philippa and Ian have a background in design given the creative thinking that goes into their product range. You can pick up all-things-sourdough here, including brownies, breadcrumbs, croissants, pastries and much more – not to mention the various delicious breads on offer.
In fact, the bread-baking was only meant to be a small part of the bistro menu, but an appearance at a local farmer’s market in 2018 turned into a bit of a lightbulb moment for Philippa. “It was our first appearance at the market and we sold something like 60 loaves in two hours,” she remembers. “We thought ‘ok, people like this’.”
With a regular cohort of customers and local stockists, the demand for sourdough bread hasn’t diminished since things starting re-opening across the islands. But that popularity hasn’t been without its downsides. “Because the bistro has been closed, over the last 18 months it has become our bakery. The chairs are in the loft and the tables are being used as counters, and all of our equipment is in here,” says Philippa. “The plan is absolutely to re-open the restaurant, but we just can’t do both at the moment.”
A small construction site in the car park provides a clue as to what the next step for Philippa and Ian is. Thanks to funding from the Islands Green Recovery Programme, a dedicated bakery building is taking shape which will eventually become home to the breadmaking side of the business. This in turn will allow the restaurant to re-open, and with plans to employ a trainee bakery assistant or two, there shouldn’t be a problem meeting demand for pizzas, pastries and everything else in-between.
“The new building will be a nice, temperature-controlled space with plenty of light,” says Philippa. “The restaurant is around 200 years old with thick walls and just isn’t meant to be a bakery, so having a purpose-built space will make a huge difference. We’ll be able to make more bread on a more even basis through the week, and then offer our pizzas in a more organised fashion too.”
Once it’s up and running, attention will turn to the restaurant to get it ready for re-opening in the spring, complete with a revised layout and extra ventilation to combat any COVID-related concerns as the country tiptoes its way towards – hopefully – the end of the pandemic.
The grant also helped pay for a lot of the equipment currently crammed into the bistro – including a new breadcrumber, two mixers, a dough-sheeter and an extra deck on the oven. A special rocket composter has also arrived to help reduce the volume of food waste heading to landfill.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do this without the grant,” says Philippa. “It’s recovery for us, but it’s also growth. We want to try new things and push the boundaries, and we have plans for things like sourdough courses for both locals and visitors.
“People like new things and it’s a fun and enjoyable process for us too.”
Ian joins us in the restaurant to begin preparing the dough for another sold-out pizza takeaway just as a large lorry appears to pick up a digger that has been in action on the building site. The couple are doing the bulk of the building work themselves, which doesn’t come as a surprise given what we’ve just heard about their work ethic.
“We’re really passionate about it and passionate about sourdough and all its health aspects. We want to be more sustainable, more creative and to keep producing things that people enjoy.”