week 18 - TEFAF cont.

TEFAF is 260 exhibitors, seemingly miles of corridors and countless objects, pictures and jewels to admire. But behind all of this sparkle lies a delightful human drama. It is the people that make this show happen, it is the daily flow of passing crowds and hurried meals and chance encounters that create a unique ambience.

The week began with a sort of elegant dance, a courtship. Leaving my travelling companions at Brussels station I drove off to Maastricht. The weather was closing in and the snow was beginning to fall. I arrive at TEFAF mid-afternoon and gather my badge from Nadine who smiles enthusiastically from behind the information counter. We met last year and it is always reassuring to see a familiar face. The Mallett stand is looking marvellous but I don't spend long there. The strange fact is that Tuesday is vetting day and we all have to leave the building until Wednesday lunchtime. So I run round like a mad thing looking for buying opportunities. Then off again. My little sample of the fair is all too quickly over and I am at the hotel.

I had wanted to whizz back to Brussels to view Eurantica. This is another fair that takes place simultaneously. But I look out of the window and snow is everywhere. The whole of Maastricht has been transformed appropriately into a Brueghel winter painting. My friend Amir, who has more energy than any human I know, is keen to take on the snow. At 2pm we brave it, gingerly making our way down the motorway in his sliver Range Rover - 4 wheel drive owners love bad weather, the chance to press all the buttons is a dream come true. Despite appalling conditions we hit the fair in good time. The only downside is that there is nothing good or tempting at the fair. We repair to les sablons (the famous Brussels antique district) and do a lightening tour. With good fortune he spots a rarity which cheers me as he has done all the driving without complaint and thus far only I have managed to buy.

Back to Maastricht and poor Amir gets home ragged and exhausted. Cafe Sjiek is my refuge and with the Mallett crew we sample their wares. To begin the traditional Dutch croquettes. These crunchy rolls of potato, spices and grey shrimps are such a cliché that many despise and ignore them on the menu. But when they are hot, crunchy on the outside and fluffy and spicy inside they are a dream and not to be beaten. Then a topical taste challenge. Today's special is horse steak. It is pitch black meat but soft and subtle in flavour with a gentle bite to the meat. It comes with mushrooms and a rich but not heavy sauce. But the mood enhancer to beat all mood enhancers was a new wine to me. It has a great label with Durer's rhinoceros and it makes a perfect accompaniment to a Maastricht evening. The wine ticks all the boxes. Dark as night, spices and rich fruit. Delicious.

So, I have flirted with the show and now I am refused access. Wednesday afternoon we are back in for housekeeping and further refreshments. Then Thursday beckons and the real event begins. It is extraordinary how the space fills and fills. It is like the tide coming in. In small waves it increases and increases. In proportion the catering starts gently with water and orange juice, then little cakes, building to a crescendo with venison and mashed potato. Champagne emerges in the afternoon. Like some strange bacchanalian ritual the crowd begins calm and focused but metamorphoses by evening into a ravening beast. The waiters are besieged, the serving tables are crowded round, people argue about who is first in line. The dealers are all observers to this. They stay keen and alert often not eating or drinking. They are there to work this crowd. Many appear content as deals are concluded or negotiation begun. Others look twitchy like hunters waiting for prey, expectancy and nerves are palpable in the air.

Then it is all over. The hall empties and the post mortem begins. Was this year better or worse than last year? How were the crowds? Did you see so and so, did you see this or that. Tired dealers troop out with clients or friends for the final push. The opening night dinner - a marathon that begins at around 10 and rarely concludes before 1. The diehards go out and party. The famously ghastly Alibaba club heaves with the glitterati until dawn.

Headaches in every sense stalk the hall for the first official day. TEFAF is well and truly underway.