Robert Atkinson is impatient with Mother Nature. The 12 vegetable beds beneath the patio of the Barcelona Wine Bar & Restaurant are awaiting the seeds for their sixth year of providing homegrown ingredients to the Fairfield restaurant’s kitchen, but the New England weather has not been cooperating.
“It’s too early,” said Atkinson, general manager at Barcelona, which is at the Hotel Hi-Ho on the Black Rock Turnpike. “What we need is about a week straight of 60-degree ground temperature in a row, with the almost guaranteed no more freezes, and then we can plant. We are planting a little late this year, with the weather not being on our side. But it looks like we’ll plant in the next week and we’ll see stuff coming pretty quick.”
This will be the sixth year of Barcelona’s vegetable garden, which offers patrons the opportunity to select ingredients for preparation by the restaurant’s kitchen staff. “I always like to tell people it’s better than farm-to-table,” continued Atkinson. “It is garden-to-table, and there is no transportation because the farmers aren’t even driving it over.”
The garden is set up in three rows of four 4-by-12 beds on a hill beneath the restaurant’s patio, and a $5 surcharge is levied for the fresh vegetable selections. While the now-empty beds do not look like a cradle of agricultural bounty before planting, Atkinson insists that the quantity of vegetables to be produced is “pretty fantastic.”
“When you look at the space, it is unbelievable how much product ever comes on it,” he stated. “We start with root vegetables, chard, zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, carrots, shishito peppers, kale, tons of tomatoes into the summer. We also grow tons of herbs: basil, mint, rosemary. We make good use of anything we can get our hands on in that garden and bring in.”
Atkinson recalled an end-of-summer tradition at Barcelona has been a garden paella party where grills are set up on the patio and all of the ingredients for a vegetable paella are picked from the garden and served as part of a wine-tasting party.
“When luck is on our side and we catch some Indian summers, we can be picking into November,” he said. “And there are not a lot of places where you can walk around in November and pick something.”
Barcelona’s garden is not the only source of fresh produce. Last year, the eatery’s parent company, Barteca Restaurant Group, opened Farmteca, a four-acre farm in Westport designed for sourcing local produce for its food preparation. Atkinson stated that Farmteca was a nonchemical agricultural operation but was not a certified organic farm.
“We are BTO — better than organic,” he said. “Some certified organic products are not good for the environment or person.”
Back at Barcelona, Atkinson pointed out that there are certain vegetable lovers who are not welcome in the garden: a deer-proof fence surrounds the vegetable beds and ospreys that nest in nearby trees have provided gratis assistance in carrying away veggie-loving rodents. And while the restaurant’s location off Exit 44 along the Merritt Parkway is convenient for drivers, being across the street from an active highway has not brought unwanted fumes from the road.
“Once those trees fill in, that disappears,” Atkinson said, pointing to the arboreal wall that is awaiting its leafy arrivals. “For the patio season, you are in the oasis and there are no fumes.”