Vita, Vita, Polenta-Eater

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Skye Gyngell in the kitchen at Petersham Nurseries
(wearing exactly the same dress as I do to cook in)

After several years living literally in a desert, I came back to England and bought a flat in St Margarets, the badlands near Richmond-on-Thames. My sister (the Pretty One) was living across the river in Petersham, and we nipped back and forth to see each other on a little boat - whistle or shout and the man appeared in his wooden craft and saved you the bother of schlepping along the towpath and crossing Richmond Bridge. It was an expat's wet dream - lush waterside meadows, grazing cattle, beautiful dark red Georgian buildings, tiny church and thundering polo ponies.

A decade or so later, St Margarets is seriously sought-after and a few oligarchs have constructed odd chalet-style compounds but the place remains relatively untouched, even though you can be bang in the West End of London in 15 minutes.

There was a  crazy little ramshackle nursery where we (no, the green-fingered Pretty One; I kill any plant I look at) used to wander about trying to find plants for her garden. In the first panicky flush of motherhood, the criteria was simple - would it poison a baby? Her boys are now young men and Petersham Nursery has become incredibly chichi and sought after; I was fascinated to read this article in Vogue a couple of years ago. If you can't be bothered to, it basically tells how the new owners of Petersham Nurseries wanted to develop the restaurant side of the businesss and in a stroke of genius, offered the chef's gig to the beautiful, troubled and talented Skye Gyngell. The daughter of an Australian tycoon, she fought a herion addiction for twenty years, emerging recently as a clean, happily settled mother of two ready to unleash her amazing gift on a grateful, greedy world.

It is, especially in the summer, almost impossible to book a table at under four weeks notice, so famous has the restaurant become. They grow all their own vegetables and the menu is composed depending on what the hand-picked suppliers deliver at 11 am. Skye has an impeccable cooking pedigree. A self-confessed control freak, she has seduced many hard-bitten critics with her passionate cooking as well as scaring several sous-chefs shitless with her perfectionist standards.

So with few hours to spare before a London conference, I finally got around to going back there with the Pretty One and her dog. If you get a chance to visit, grab it with both hands. It's the most authentic, eccentric English experience. We missed lunch, but had tea and perfect tart, moist lemon polenta cake. Being vain and the wrong side of forty, we shared a piece, eschewing smugly the amazing saffron-coloured carrot cake studded with dark chocolate, magenta beetroot cake and perfect nursey-tea scones. Actually, the PO and I inhaled half each and the dog lying hopefully under the table never got a look-in.

The plants and flowers are stunning, and the people who work there are just delightful. They promised that the amaryllis bulb would flower red just in time for Christmas, and that the hyacinth bulbs are almost indestructable. Apparently, even I, sworn enemy of Nature, could pull off the whole Lady Chatterly something-Mellors-and-I-have-been-working-on thing.

The shop is like a huge, slightly run-down Edwardian greenhouse. Battered tables, lush displays of greenery, shabby baskets holding all manner of treasures. Things I would have snapped up if I had limitless funds: antique French mirror, shabby stone urns, huge fragile silver and glass Christmas baubly-type things. Things I would have snapped up if I had limitless legs: dark blue lace-up wellies. Their own-brand garden bits are also covetable - canvas and leather aprons, gauntlets and boot bags. Very Sackville-West.

The PO was busy sniggering her way through a story she'd been told by some well-connected neighbours of hers about an actress and some randy husbands. Unfortunately, we're all slightly deaf in our family and she had misheard 'bike' as 'dyke,' which completely changed the tale. I thought it made it heaps better. NOT very Sackville-West.


  1. I haven't been there for years - this makes me want to go back! Looking forward to the lemon polenta cake already.

  2. I'm forever confusing bikes and dykes. Perhaps I should move to Holland?

  3. Maggie - make the trek! It's soo worth it.

    William - yes, you should. They also have fabulous garden centres there, so you could tick several boxes in one move!

  4. I love this place ....were we there on the same day?? I had morning tea there last saturday. The cakes were just as delish as you describe...Have a wonderful weekend, xv.

  5. How funny! It's just bliss isn't it, though I think the Belgians and Dutch JUST win by a nose on perfect garden centres. Hope your weekend was lovely!

  6. Lucky me it's on my doorstep end provides hours of smashing fun!

  7. Lucky you indeed - go buy some huge baubles for me??


Please leave a comment if you can be remotely bothered - anything you have to say is valuable and I absolutely love hearing from you all. Elizabeth