week 17 - TEFAF

TEFAF (The European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht) beckons and is everywhere. Bond Street and all the streets around Mayfair are jammed with shippers. Paper, bubble wrap and enormous wooden crates clutter the pavements and galleries.

A little further out of town and every restorer is being rung up to complete that last piece of perfection which will complete the object and make it ready for TEFAF. Assistants and secretaries pack books, type tickets and prepare research folders, ready for their ultimate sales pitch and ready to meet the stringent vetters who in a few day's time will be poring over their goods.

This brouhaha is taking place in Munich, Paris, Rome and all over. The confluence of cultures and international people is remarkable. It is a unique invasion of a small, strategically placed, but otherwise irrelevant town. On a personal level I felt touched by a postcard that I received from my friends who run a bar called Cafe Sjiek. It is the culinary and oenological epicentre of Maastricht for me and they are eagerly awaiting my return, once again to stalwartly battle my way through their stock of Nero d'Avola. The pitch black wine from Sicily that inspires and comforts in equal measure.

Now I am off to Belgium and then to Holland and Maastricht. The usual early start is accepted and I head off to Folkestone in the car with my assistant Francesca, and previous colleague Nick. Nick is a hoot to be with and he is coming with us to scout for treasure. He has gone into business with another ex Mallett guy, Tarquin. They work well together as a sort of Abbott and Costello double act. The car journey is surreal. Francesca coughs in a way that must hurt her and it pushes her forward in her seat whilst Nick chortles away in the front, what about is a mystery. Strange companions.

As we sit having a coffee in the hall our shuttle is called and it is immediately 'last call' (shades of Ryanair). We rush out and drive on. A few minutes into the tunnel and my name is called over the tannoy. I find a guard and he informs me that I left my jacket and wallet in the hall. Argh. The whole trip is in jeopardy. But amazingly my jacket was handed in and equally amazingly it has been bundled up and put on the next shuttle. A delay of half an hour and we are once again on our way. Thank you Euroshuttle!

We end the day in Vismet in Brussels by Saint Catherine's. It is a simple place, not overly large, and is a broad rectangular room with an open kitchen to the side. It is one of the best fish restaurants I know. The staff are super friendly and they scamper around in a helpful and obliging manner. A surprisingly rare thing with waiters. We order Zeeland oysters which are medium size and bright and clear in taste, with an intense saltiness. Six is perfect. And my beloved grey shrimps, I am obsessed with these little salty chewy morsels of the sea. They are on every menu from here to Maastricht and what a joy they are.

The market at Tongeren is huge and sprawling and takes place every Sunday. It is great fun and awash with delightful foreign ephemera. Why is it that foreign junk is so much more appealing than domestic junk? I once bought at a 'vide grenier' in France a petrol can. It was rusty and covered in oil stains but it had some lovely French writing on it. It sits in our kitchen to this day, my wife still cannot understand why I bought it. Unfortunately Tongeren is too tempting and I sweep up loads of bits and pieces. I buy one thing that is really intriguing a pair of blown glass spiral candles. According to the vendor it was a Belgian tradition to have fake candles when you weren't using your chandelier. Well there you go.

Back in Brussels and a visit to Tom Desmet, a father and son concern which thrives because they manage to combine being quirky and original with being focused on quality and classic design. This again is a rarer combination than you might think, especially considering how vital it is for survival and success in our business these days.

Tomorrow off to Maastricht.