Petersham Nurseries is only a 20-minute train ride from the center of London in the lovely town of Richmond upon Thames, but it seems a world away in actuality. Who knew that heaven was waiting for me here on earth? Francesco and Gael Boglione, who created this enchanting escape hatch from reality, have been written about ad nauseum, but in my opinion they are worth every word. Then you ask, why would I want to write more, and if so, what more do you say about a sexy Italian ex-pat and a beautiful Australian gal who planted themselves on the banks of the river Thames to set about cultivating the culinary and botanical scene of Richmond in more ways than one?
I have known Francesco for more than 30 years. Yes, since I was but a mere infant. I first met him at the elegant home of his parents in Turin, Italy where I went to visit his brothers, Marco and Enrico. He was a hippie living and working in India. Francesco was the chicest-looking hippie I had ever encountered. We re-met many years later in London, where from the outside he seemed a changed man, working 9 to 5 in the insurance business. But this was no ordinary insurance salesman, his clients were some of the largest companies in the world.
Francesco was still the epitome of style, and those conservative Italian suits didn't tame his wild side. An invite to his gorgeous apartment on Roland Gardens, a few doors down from Anoushka Hempel's Blakes Hotel, was coveted. He definitely knew how to throw a great party. Therefore, you can only imagine the three-day affair that was given when Francesco married the stunning former model from Australia, Gael. Between the two of them, they knew everybody worth knowing in London and beyond. Greek shipping heirs, members of European royal families along with the likes of Mick Jagger and George Harrison were all in attendance. Francesco and Gael continue to entertain, and they do it with old-fashioned grace and charm in the Bogliones' magnificent home, built in 1624.
In 2004, Francesco somewhat nonchalantly told me that he had opened a restaurant. Why, after having retired from the rat race, would he want the headache of a restaurant I asked. His response was simply that it just happened and happened in a big way. First, the Bogliones bought the nursery next door to their historic manor house. They spent a great deal of time and a whole lot of money restoring it to its present glory. They later decided to add a cafe where people could linger over steaming cups of good strong coffee or a soothing pot of tea along with wonderful sandwiches, cakes and cookies. The cafe grew and became the restaurant it is today under the tutelage of Skye Gyngell, their Michelin-starred chef.
On my first visit to Petersham Nurseries to eat lunch, I drew comparisons to the famous River Cafe, where Italy greatly influences the menu, combined with the use of seasonal, environmentally correct local ingredients. I am partial to this style of cooking. The visuals and flavors are intoxicating, and more importantly, it doesn't weigh you down and can actually invigorate.
I was completely "inamorata" with the restaurant after only one visit, so much so that my co-author, William Stadiem and I decided to include it in our book Everybody Eats There about the world's 100 most legendary restaurants. We felt that Petersham was a legend in waiting. We were right. Since the day of opening, the restaurant has been booked up one month in advance, and they just received that first Michelin star. More to come, I am sure!
Petersham Nurseries appeared in the galleys of our book, but after our terrific editor Chris Pavone finished editing our book, he, unfortunately for us, quit working for our publisher, and left us to be hijacked by another editor brought in by the "evil doers" of the company. This chapter was deleted along with many others. GRRRRRR!!!! I am still angry about it. Alora... like the Italians say, it is pay back time. I decided to take a trip to London and revisit Petersham. I called Francesco, and asked if I could come to visit him, the family and the Nursery.
The first thing I did upon arriving at Petersham after a long night flight from New York, was to immediately take a walk down to the nursery to see how things had changed since my last visit. I was overwhelmed by what I saw. Flowers, gorgeous flowers and more flowers! People everywhere, but only adding to the gaiety of the place, not crowding it. The food coming out of the kitchen looked better than I remembered. My mouth was salivating. I was still in breakfast mode but quickly changed time zones in my head so as to partake in a rejuvenating repast.
I vividly remember this meal. I started things off with the obligatory Petersham Prosecco Rose cocktail which is prosecco infused with rose syrup and crystallized rose petals in the bottom of the glass which slowly dissolve into the drink. My taste buds were immediately awakened and I was ready to dive into the delightful courgette (zucchini), raw artichoke and mint salad accompanied by fresh burrata mozzarella. A chunky version of gazpacho followed, and it was truly one of the best I have ever had. The cold soup was refreshing and filled with vegetables from the Petersham gardens. Bruschetta made with grilled wholegrain bread lightly rubbed with garlic, then drizzled with fruity olive oil and a drop of aged balsamic vinegar, was used to sop up the last drops of my soup. I washed this all down with a delicious glass of Italian rosé from the Piedmonte region. The small but well-constructed wine list includes many wines made by friends of the Boglione family in Italy and in France. I managed to use some will power and denied myself dessert, something I rarely do. The frozen summer fruit is a must and I admit I did try it at another lunch.
How lucky was I to have the choice everyday whether or not to mosey on down to the Nursery to eat, or stay up at the house where on any given day, meals are served family-style in the large modern kitchen. It was a big decision let me tell you! If I had breakfast at the Teahouse, the more informal kitchen of the Cafe, where the croissants and home made jam were my guilty pleasure, then I would eat lunch in the house and vice a versa! (It definitely helped to be able to work out with Mike, the Boglione's trainer, who took us on long runs through Richmond Park or along the Thames to burn off the calories and work up an appetite for the next great meal).
If you are privy to be invited to Petersham House for a weekend Saturday or Sunday lunch, be prepared to over eat and drink because everything is served abbondante (in abundance). Whether it is a roasted leg of lamb, a succulent chicken, or some kind of wonderful pasta dish (remember this is an Italian household), there will always be a cornucupia of vegetables picked fresh from the Petersham gardens served along side the main star. Domenico, Marco and Bobby trade off cooking for the family, but there is no hierarchy or feeling of upstairs/downstairs. The Bogliones are a very informal family living in a formal setting. Maria who runs the house and also cooks when needed, has worked with the family for over 20 years. She brings her adorable daughter Leonora to work every day. There are always strays like me who wander in and out of this rambling home at any given time. It is one big extended family.
Fabulous contemporary art dominates the interior of the renovated manor house. There is a Damien Hirst, Lucien Freud and Sandro Chia among others, and recently the house has welcomed a new addition to the collection, a male nude from the ancient days of Rome who Francesco likes to call his Micheangelo. All the furniture and art in the house has been lovingly chosen. Nothing is pretentious.
This is a warm and comfortable home made more so by the families' fascinating brood of children. Harry, 21, is living in Australia, Gael's homeland, where he is overseeing the building of the Boglione's newest residence in Palm Beach (yes there is a Palm Beach in Australia). Lara, 27, is working with the Petersham Nursery shop traveling all over the world searching for their wonderfully exotic merchandise. She is also involved with the cafe overseeing the selection of the restaurant's marvelous wines. Ruby, 19, just finished her middle years or the equivilant of high school and is planning on attending cooking school in the fall. Then there is Anna, 23, who is pursuing a career in the acting and theater world. Which brings me to my next topic... The Petersham Playhouse.
Petersham is a place that has attracted the world's great writers, painters, actors and rock stars many who live in the hood and are also good friends of the Bogliones. (Even Prince Charles and Camilla have partied at Petersham!) One of the local personalities, along with her dad, planted the seed in Anna's head that developing plays, operas and bringing performers to the stage of the Petersham House would enrich the restaurant and the town. Truth... Francesco, feeling the emptiness of the house following the recent departure of most of the children, wanted to keep their spirit alive by opening up the house to others to enjoy via the concept of the Playhouse.
The first Petersham Playhouse Festival will be held on September 15th though the 17th.
Anna along with her co-founder and producer,Louis Waymouth (who moonlights helping out in the Petersham Cafe) have commissioned Martin Ward and Phil Porter from the famed Covent Garden Royal Opera, to write a modern-day chamber opera called Dr Quimpugh's Compendium Of Peculiar Afflictions to be performed in the ballroom of the Bogliones' home. There will be pre-show drinks on the lawn of the house. After the one hour and 20 minute performance, the guests will then be invited to descend into the restaurant to enjoy a three-course meal prepared by Skye. (If you wish to know more about the Petersham Playhouse and this exciting event, please go to their web site, petershamnurseries.com and click on Petersham Playhouse).
Petersham doesn't stop with plants, food and theater -- well of course not; why would it? Petersham Properties was set up by Gael Boglione and a good friend of hers, who compiled a listing of some of the most fabulous properties in the world to be available to rent. They approached their friends, and friends of friends who use these homes as vacation getaways in faraway places like Mustique, the Maldives and closer to home (depending where you live) the English countryside. If you too want to live life like a rock star, (many of whom list their properties with Petersham), go to Petershamproperties.com and live your dream! Or, just hop a plane, train or whatever and get thee to Petersham Nurseries where those dreams can come true for a very small stipend!!
Church Lane, off Petersham Road, Petersham
Richmond, Surrey, TW107AG
Tel: + 44 208 605-3627
Fax: +44 208 605-3447
PS -- On my second day at Petersham I was leisurely drinking a cup of coffee down in the Nursery, reading the papers and intermittently sending emails with photos I had taken with my phone, when just like that, all of my photos disappeared! I freaked out and dashed into Richmond to try to see if someone could help to figure out what happened and help me retrieve what was lost. After madly running from phone shop to phone shop, I was finally directed over the Richmond bridge to a store called PC Mac Doctors.
They said, "your phone corrupted your memory card" whatever that meant. I said, "can you fix it?" They said yes, for a price. Well, what was I to do? I lost so much data. I told them to go for it. 90 pounds later, the equivalent of about $180.00, they rescued my phone, and the majority of photos. Most of the photos in this story were taken by me with my phone and I owe it all to them.
PC Mac Doctors
443 Richmond Road
+44 208 843-7180
Ask for Daniel