THE BLOG

Life in the Arts Lane - Week 69 - Milan to Coombe Bissett

06/04/2014 13:02 BST | Updated 04/06/2014 10:59 BST

Alitalia to Milan: arriving at City airport, embarrassingly early as ever, I found myself lost in its recently acquired slickness. In days of yore when we used to fly to Maastricht from City, it had an old school amateurishness. Once, flying to Scotland from here with Giles, the little airline we were using got very muddled over each aspect of the flight; tickets, check in, boarding - everything was chaotic. There was yet another delay and I asked too loudly whether the pilot had overwound the elastic band driving the propellers? Everything ground to a halt and the air hostess rather sheepishly came over and asked me to apologise to the pilot as he was not prepared to take off until I had. I did so with as much dignity as I could muster in the circumstances, which was not much.

Today City is like any international airport, beginning with a winding labyrinth of duty free. They all do it. It is a cunning way of making us admire every scent and every discounted bottle of vodka. The only failing is that it drives us all crazy with annoyance and disinclined to make a purchase. After the queuing for ticket checks and the subsequent indignities of the bag and body searches you press forward desirous of coffee, but you are forced to run the gauntlet of the duty free maze. Never mind, I am before too long parked behind a table and a nice overly keen waiter, ever so slightly reminiscent of Basil Fawlty brings me coffee, water and a brace of poached eggs on almost bearable brown toast. Phew!

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I am collected in Milan by my host who greets me eagerly and enthusiastically even though we have never met before. I have a sudden rush of English reserve and withdraw mildly. After a swift luxurious journey into town in their chauffeur driven BMW I am deposited outside their shop in the Brera district. Milan is huge and sprawling but its great treasures are all in or around the Brera, The Duomo, the fabulous adjacent 19th century shopping arcade called the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, La Scala, the legendary Opera and Ballet house, and the Brera Picture Gallery. Here all the best shopping brands have their outlets but also, reassuringly so do a multiplicity of local shops selling everything from cakes to haute couture. My hosts have 5 shops in the district and they display and sell from each period of the whole of the 20th century from its first decade to its last, and they do so with amazing style and panache, and with astonish quantity. I have almost never seen so much stock. Every available space is filled, but unlike the Netherlandish warehouses where most of what you see is of little consequence or merit, here each item is chosen and is interesting at the very least if not desirable. I am here to look but I cannot resist buying a couple of wonderful things. The business is called Roberta e Basta and Roberta herself is a fountain of energy and enthusiasm. It practically crackles off her. Her son Mattia is charming and efficient but I see he spends a lot of his time holding his mother back. She says she buys every day, I do not doubt it. Over lunch she tells me the bare bones of her story. Beginning by buying period antiques, she turned to buying contemporary and modern in the 60s and thus she was decades ahead of her time in seeing that opportunity. But she never looked back and now she stands tall as others are trying to catch up. We drink Arneis, a Piedmontese grape that produces a delightful fresh and brittle taste which is a perfect lunchtime enhancement. The waiter comes to the table and says; what would you like to eat? We choose nothing from the menu, we just say what we feel like and it comes. I eat deep fried zucchini flowers stuffed with Mozzarella and the fillets of a really ugly looking fish, whose breed is a mystery to me. I have never seen it at a fishmonger in London. The flesh is an off white colour with a dark brown spine and it is presented amid black olives, roast delicate slices of artichoke and a scattering of cherry tomatoes. The son is being serious and practical, the mother and I have a fun time finishing off the wine.

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Back in England, on Thursday, Giles and I head off to the west to see some mystery furniture. We are not told what we are going to see but we are promised lunch at Scott's if we are disappointed. Giles is reluctant to go without some indication of what lies ahead but I love the intrigue. The M4 is not a beautiful road, it is flat and dreary and the trucks rumble along constantly vying for supremacy and thereby blocking everyone. Eventually we peel off and the smaller roads bring a sigh of relief. After a couple of slightly missed signs we arrive and have the tour of treasures. Coffee is consumed and chocolate coated ginger biscuits. Our host has a battle with the packet, stabbing away at the plastic with a massive knife. Eventually he breaks in and discovers that the packet has already been opened at the other end, he hides his embarrassment by suggesting that the packet has been purchased pre-opened and that a biscuit theft has been perpetrated. We eat the biscuits. The object in question is admired and reflected upon, it needs to come to London for forensic checks so the Scott's lunch wager will have to wait.

We drive on to Marlborough and have a jolly lunch in a tucked away pub called the Lamb. Giles, from Mallett, has the cunning plan of asking in the vintage clothing store for a good eatery. Sure enough the staff have a local favourite, and, as we enter, there is a nice girl behind the bar wearing 50s clothes, so we know we are in the right place. I have a vintage lunch, a beef and ale pudding. It is stodgy and delicious. Half way through our lunch in this quiet backwater of Marlborough, a rowdy gang of OAPs burst in. Zimmer frames and walking sticks crash around and everyone is in a festive mood. Laughter and mutual teasing fill the air and Giles and I feel strangely youthful but delighted by this effusive and playful gang. We head off for our afternoon satisfied and cheered.

We finish the day in Coombe Bissett, in a dealer's converted chicken house. We talk trade and the fairs. He has a strong local and national business, both decorating and dealing, and his model clearly works well. We look round but there is not a lot to see, he has been preparing for Masterpiece and his treasures and surprises are being kept back for then. The secret of a successful fair is to do this. Those dealers that just turn up can be lucky, but the ones who search out the new and the exceptional and who hold things back for the big event tend to be the biggest winners. Nothing comes easily in this complex but rewarding phase in the market cycle. It is a cliché to say it, but I will anyway, the more you put in the more you get out!