The temptation to live for a week in a world where Ruinart Champagne flows like water (or Coca Cola) whilst eating every meal in Le Caprice was one that I failed to resist. This was my last Masterpiece fair and I thought that as my involvement, other than as a shareholder, was coming to an end, the dealers and the press would have had enough of me. But this seemed not the case, and every day I ate a delicious lunch in excellent company looking out over the terrace and through the trees towards the permanent Wren buildings whilst sitting in a pop-up version. Taxi drivers still drop people off at the entrance baffled by the sudden appearance from nowhere of a vast 17th century building.
The flow of the week began with the patrons and curators' evening on Tuesday night. 700-odd visitors from around the world have the freedom to roam gently and quietly around the fair before having supper as the sun set over the Royal Hospital. It was a lovely start to the fair and my first glass of Ruinart was a joy. This champagne is so crisp, bright and full of minerals that it is like a tonic. Of course the alcohol content helps, but it is such a delightful cold bubbly essence of Spring. Many more followed. Supper of crispy duck with watermelon, and then the signature Caprice burger. Brown fluffy chips accompanied the pink grilled flesh in a sublime demonstration of why burgers are served with chips.
Wednesday was the formal preview day and 6500 people passed through the fair over 10 hours. They all seemed to stay and stay and the aisles become hard to navigate as the fever to consume intensified. The poor waiters flew around trying to get to corners of the fair where a drink and a canapé had not been seen for a while, but business was done, the red dots marking the sold items began to proliferate, and the dealers generally looked pleased, if a little weary.
fter this, the days followed in a steady pattern, beginning with a flurry of visitors and getting busier and busier as the hours passed. It is a strange truth that Masterpiece is the only fair in the world which is at its fullest in the last hour. Traditionally and internationally the final hour of a fair is quiet and the dealers pass the time gossiping and drinking. But not here. Around Scott's bar, which is at the centre of the fair, the crowds accumulated and a festive celebratory air dominated. This continued right up until the last minute of the last day. But it is not all about food and drink, the serious buyers come from all round the world as do those new to the market. Some visit simply to learn and enjoy the collegiate collaborative spirit of the dealers. 35,000 over 8 days.
The fair finished on Wednesday and as soon as the last visitor left, the clearing and packing begins. This process is as extraordinary as the build. Within minutes the fantasy of perfection which is Masterpiece begins to fade. The bar is dismantled as the jewellery dealers pack to leave. By midnight the fair is a ghost of itself and by lunchtime the next day everyone has packed up and left, leaving the walls to be dismantled and parcelled up for their next stop on the seemingly endless conveyor belt of art fairs.
I say goodbye to as many people as I can, and head off home. Sitting in my kitchen, the whole fleeting experience of Masterpiece passes through my mind and I try to order and remember how the days have passed. It is both a 100 metre dash and a marathon rolled into one. Once again it is over in a trice having taken a year to create. One slow blink and it is gone.
On Friday I make for Milan. I have always wanted to go to the opera at La Scala and that ambition was about to be achieved. Tickets were hard to buy but I was saved by Mattia and his staff at Robertaebasta, who queued up and bought them for us. Their help didn't stop there, as during the fair I frequently called by their stand asking about restaurants; in the end they booked places for each of our three nights. Milan is well represented at Masterpiece: We have Bottegantica with 19th-century pictures, Carlo Eleuteri with jewels and silver, Giorgio Gallo for furniture and Roberto Caiati with Old Master pictures, not forgetting our friends at Robertaebasta, of course, who sell the best of 20th-century Italian design. So each representative was visited during the fair for culinary or cultural advice.
Our tickets for La Scala were for Saturday night so we had the pleasure of spending a day wandering around Milan. We ticked one box by visiting the Brera art gallery, filled with treasures both familiar and new. But the unexpected joy was discovering a thread woven through many of our visits by the Art Deco Milanese architect Piero Portaluppi. We began by touring his gem of a house built for the Necchi Campiglio families. Light, airy and open; designed with a sense of fun and a luxurious attention to detail, the library alone was worth the visit with the balance of comfortable spaces, books and precious objects brilliantly achieved. It was followed by a visit to the Poldi Pezzoli house which houses, amongst innumerable treasures, Portaluppi's collection of over 2000 sundials, which gave us an insight into his obsession with the action of light, together with his cunning use of historic references and antiques in his interiors. Fortuitously one of the restaurants we were sent to turned out to be located in one his most famous buildings overlooking the Duomo and opposite the Galleria. It seemed as if everywhere we went there was a reference to or an echo of his life and work.
Dressed up in our finery we proceeded to La Scala. The opera house is a magnificent flourish of white and gold, wit, at its centre a mad gilt chandelier which has at its core tiers of glass and gold as you would expect, but swirling around are octopus-like arms sweeping out in all directions with what seem like glass cereal bowls as terminals. The Opera house was 'rebuilt' in 1946 after being bombed in the war - I expect it was created then. The stalls are surrounded by tiers of boxes, each having two front seats with standing room behind. You feel immediately transported back to the 19th century and the early days of the opera house: one imagines people popping in and out, visiting and chatting and the music/performance becoming a subsidiary event to the social opera taking place all around. But we are well behaved and we stay quietly in our seats, with two enthusiasts standing behind us getting as close as they could - rather than being annoying, they added to the historic atmosphere. The interval brought us Prosecco in the high-ceilinged, colonnaded, ballroom-like bar, the Ridotto Arturo Toscanini. No bell, but the lights dim to send you back to your box. Cosi Fan Tutte was in modern dress and the dark side of the story came out strongly as the manipulation of the young lovers was made prominent. The music seemed to echo the lack of a wholehearted loving reconciliation. We left to have a late supper and a debate about the production.
All the meals we ate were perfect, beginning at Risacca 6 where we tasted warm delicate soft shredded calamari and a risotto di mare which was dark and salty with a hint of celery adding interest to the shellfish hidden within the perfect al dente nest of rice. At the Osteria Di Brera we were plied with wonderful deep -fried puffy pillows of parmesan. And at the extraordinary restaurant in the Portaluppi building, Giacomo Arengario, which overlooks the newly cleaned gleaming white gothic fantasy Duomo, we tasted guazetta in a spicy tomato sauce. We finished this culinary adventure by spending our last two hours before flying home at the Fioraio Bianchi (a restaurant disguised as a flower shop) eating a robust intense pasta of sardines and dried cod's roe, and involtini of swordfish wrapped in a herb-rich breadcrumb crust. A last glass of icy prosecco and we were on our way to the airport and back to reality.