Sitting round our dining room table we are enjoying a bottle of Volpetto and some chicken roast by my wife in honey, mustard and lemon. It has given the skin an intense black glaze, sort of burnt, but in a good way. Strong sweet and tangy flavour alongside succulent meat, A very successful dish. I look around the table. Both my sons are discretely keeping an eye on their mobile phones. I am too. My 'ever loving' has a rule 'no toys at the table' we abide but secretly disobey. Out of the corner of my eye I spot a message. The conversation up to this point has been random, mainly complaints by me about how little the boys help with the day to day tidiness. You know, the usual boring crotchety dad stuff, no one is listening anyway. I pick up my phone and read. Sallie Brady has died. It was such an extraordinary mental gear shift to even take this news in. Immediately I could see her lush golden hair and her broad smile and slightly nervous hesitant tone. Gone. It is so peculiar. She was only 47. I learnt later that there had been a fire at her home in New Jersey. She had suffered the loss of her husband not long ago and the grief had been hard to handle. So, a double tragedy. Her absence will be sorely felt. She was a sort of talisman for Masterpiece. She had spoken on our first promotional video and was always trumpeting our success and aspiration wherever she went or wrote. She was almost an ambassador for us. But it was not just for Masterpiece. She was one of life's enthusiasts. Always positive, always smiling, always delighted to see you and speak. Journalism has changed since the economic downturn. Writers are expected to work harder, for less and with little security of further work. Those that manage to retain their composure and charm are few. She was categorically one of those. She was also a sort of symbol of love too. Her marriage must have been very special. I never met her husband, in truth I did not know Sallie that well. But the bond they had that was broken was devastating to her. I wonder how many other marriages could claim a similar reaction. For me Sallie and Masterpiece are inextricably joined and this year we will all celebrate and miss her during the fair.
Pre-Tasting the food for the various events during Masterpiece is one of the treats of the fair. At the Caprice practice kitchen in North London we sat round guided by Lucy and studiously munched through the vetting breakfast, the curators evening and the preview day. We sipped wines for each event and diluted the pleasure with a non-alcoholic cocktail, a sort of elderflower mojito. The surreal nature of this experience is hard to capture as we all learnedly weigh up the sourness of a goats cheese or the potential crumbliness of a pastry. We pretend to be old or frail or simply drunk, or a greedy dealer wanting to get value for money out of his stand price. We create many an odd scenario over a couple of hours. In the end we conclude with as many delicious things as we can. The aspiration is to deliver a worthy accompaniment for the exceptional items that are coming. This all has to be a background to the excellence and scholarship available, and it has to be complimentary and supportive, not distracting.
Friday early morning we are off to Paris. Giles (from Mallett) and I are off to the sales and a visit to the rive gauche for the 'carrement audacieux' a very amusing pun in French which I had to have explained to me. It is so amusing I will leave you to work it out. The route in Paris is so familiar to me now that I could almost do it in my sleep. Down on foot to the Drouot. Then Metro to the Faubourg St Honoré. Then Metro to rue du Bac. Lunch, looking, shopping, cocktails at Le Pré aux Clercs, supper at Lipp, digestif at les Deux Magots. Bed. Breakfast at the Voltaire with a tartine and their homemade jams. Off for a day of exploring. Now most of that did happen. But. Radically we took a taxi from the Faubourg St Honoré to the rue de L'Universite. It felt weird, spoilt and even lazy. Giles and I both commented that in other cities we don't think twice about taking a taxi. Even in our own fair city, London. But habit is insistent. Somehow over the decades we have got used to this orbit around public transport. It feels right, it feels normal. Anything else carries with it a sense of transgression or naughtiness. The taxi driver was great and we duly found ourselves back on track visiting shops and having lunch at La Fregate with Sylvain. The food here is not really memorable or even sufficiently traditional to be worthy of comment. We only eat here because Sylvain fell out with his culinary alma mater the Voltaire, 50 yards away. They let him down appallingly on the opening night of his new shop. He had booked half the restaurant and when he arrived with 30 guests they had given away his tables. Even though he had eaten there at least twice a week for nearly twenty years. They were unapologetic. He has never darkened their doors again. Moreover the pain is still there. He will repeat the story at the drop of a hat. Lunch therefore was fine but it was, as usual, more about where we weren't eating than where we were.
A few object purchases later and after a few entertaining chats to exhibitors we found ourselves meeting up with my ex assistant Ruth. She is an American, a pocket dynamo, as they say. She worked for me for a while then she moved to Christies. She is now covering for someone in Paris for a couple of months. She speaks great French and though work obviously has its annoyances she seems to be thoroughly embracing the experience, ahead of an ultimate return to, and career in, the USA. It is a terrible admission but though Giles and I get on really well and there is never a shortage of things to discuss an 'extra' at the table is always hugely welcome. I persuade them both to have the chicken and mashed potato. It does not disappoint. The day ends in the traditional manner at les deux Magots and I sleep well knowing I have a fun day at the puces in Clignancourt ahead.