Barge East: Great tastes and sights from a historic London setting
- Credit: Clementine Scott
Nestled in between the canal and the Olympic Park, the 114-year-old Dutch barge which houses most of Barge East’s dining areas is an eye-catching introduction to the Hackney Wick restaurant.
However, just a couple of feet away from the water is the true star of the restaurant — Barge East’s lockdown project, a garden made up of 20 or so planters growing many of the herbs and vegetables used in the modern British menu.
Despite a decade working in kitchens, head chef Stefano Camplone had no experience growing his own food to cook prior to the first lockdown. But after the pandemic provided impetus for the owners to put in action a plan for a garden they’d had since Barge East’s inception. “All I’d done was grow plants on my balcony, unsure if they were surviving, and then I was part of the team which built an entirely new garden”, Stefano tells the Gazette.
The experience has encouraged Stefano to consider food at all stages of its journey from seed to table, something he was already inclined to do, as the son of a fishing family in the Adriatic coastal city of Pescara, Italy. A good relationship with Finsbury Park seed suppliers Urban Organics encourages him to think innovatively — “I always ask what seeds they can offer me of a similar style? Or a bit different?”.
The restaurant’s head gardener, Amy, also speaks fondly of her and Stefano’s mutually informative relationship. “Working with chefs, I often get people asking for produce which is completely out of season,” she says. “So it’s cool to be working with someone who actually understands what’s happening.” Stefano’s level of creativity as a chef is evidenced by his delight in finding new ways of using this homegrown produce, ranging from a celery leaf oil used for a creamy, mint-green parfait, to a malt vinegar infused with chive flowers.
The focus on homegrown produce is part of Barge East’s wider commitment to sustainable practices. Stefano tells me that three external suppliers have recently been rejected for failing to live up to sustainability standards, and that approximately 80 per cent of produce is from UK suppliers (aside from the garden, Stefano forages on Hackney Marshes or purchases from farms around the South East).
Amy is similarly proud of her use of alternative pest-control methods, and views growing one’s own food as a “radical act”. “It’s saying no to lots of the systems that we know don’t quite work for the planet,” she says.
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As people have increasingly started to grow their own food during the pandemic, with 65 per cent of UK councils having allotment waiting lists of more than 100 people, I ask Stefano and Amy if they have advice for home gardeners. “If you’re on the computer, if you get it wrong, you can wipe it and do it again,” says Amy, advising patience, “whereas with gardening, you only have the length of the season, and then you have to wait for the next opportunity.”
Stefano responds in a way that echoes the joy he takes in learning more about food, telling new gardener-cooks to “choose produce that you like, and get used to growing it, and after that you can experiment with something new.”
This joy is ever-present as we take some time after the interview to explore the garden, where the plants he singles out for particular praise include the anise-smelling Mexican marigold (“it’s beautiful, and there’s no way to describe its flavouring”), a green and yellow variety of courgette (“many don’t know you can eat the flowers as well”), and a patch of beetroot and chard (“you can pick as much as you want, as long as you don’t disturb where the plant grows in the centre”).
His favourite dish on the menu? “The cuttlefish starter [with a broad bean and roast pepper salad], — everything’s in one bite, the sweet, the savoury, the acidity, as well as the smokiness of the barbecue.”
When I taste this starter at dinner later on, a delicate balance between tender crustacean and the tang of the vegetables, I wholeheartedly agree with him.