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Happy New Year!

Our blog and our Facebook Page activity has been strangely static recently, which I really regret. It is nothing personal, nothing other than other excitements and responsibilities that can happen over Christmas with a happy houseful. We have never been less than seven and and recently nine in the house which means with the barns as well, a fair amount of washing and baking, not to mention opening of presents, prolonged meals and silly card games after supper – and even the odd walk in the rain! And talking of washing, we have all noticed our clothes are tending to shrink – it must be because we are having to use the dryer rather than hang them outside?

Our Australian contingent is over, to our joy: Sara, Derek and young Tom who is now 8. Last time they were here we had prolonged snow over their entire stay; this time it has never stopped raining. Let’s hope their next visit we have prolonged unnaturally fine weather!

We have had a lovely, family time. However, we thought at first that we might have a cat crisis/tragedy on our hands as Boots our much loved Orchard Farm puss seemed to be rapidly going downhill, a diagnosis the first visit to the vet confirmed, with thinly veiled warnings that the final sleep might be hanging over her. However, four trips to the vets later, antibiotics and various injections, tempting morsels of turkey and ham (will she ever go back to those pouches of nameless cat food?) and she is making terrific progress but she is very old and we accept that we can’t expect her to go on for ever but meanwhile she is enjoying her recovery, as are we.

Soon other realities will kick in – marmalade making and tax returns and the annual Quality in Tourism inspection, which has tightened up its standards we are told. Meanwhile, with new Year looming the strange Christmas- New Year ‘no man’s land’ continues…

Happy New Year to one and all.

Booking Glitches, Facts and Promises

don’t forget that 2012 prices still hold until the last minute of 2012. As Auld Lang Syne starts up, so do our 2013 prices.

There is so much to write about, and I have just been reminded (even perhaps gently reprimanded?) by John that anyone would think we spent a week in Florence doing nothing but eating and cooking. Although we did do quite a bit of that, we did actually spend most of our time in churches, museums and galleries, marvelling – with some inspiring guides – at the wonderful works of art. It is hard to know what to single out, but I am thinking about the highlights and will produce a (not) lengthy report sooner or later…

Meanwhile, something more mundane than incredible Renaissance art is on our minds: a problem to do with our booking system that we were incredibly slow to recognise. Since October, when Premier Cottages launched their new website we and a number of colleagues who all belong to the cooperative of top 4 and 5 Star holiday cottages had noticed a fall off in the number of bookings, and a huge increase in the number of ‘admin’ bookings – i.e. when people ring to book rather than booking online. Normally in October after the Premier brochure comes out we get two or three dozen bookings; this year we got nine.

It took Super Control a minute to fix the problem, and us two months to realise that the problem existed at all.

In a most unscientific way we agreed with each other that each year was different, and how one could never count on a certain pattern being repeated. I also noticed that while bookings in general were lower than usual for the time of year the proportion of ‘admin’ ones significantly higher than usual but thought nothing more of it. I am embarrassed to admit that we also had a significant number of you ringing up to book actually said say that you had tried and failed to book a short break. And, the penny still did not drop…! We assumed that the process could be a bit daunting for anyone not totally computer-confident (there are many of us) and merely said reassuringly that that was fine and we could do it for you this end. How slow we were!

We returned from Florence to find numerous emails about a glitch in the booking system. It took Super Control a minute to fix the problem, and us two months to realise that the problem existed at all. Hopefully all is well now but if you do have a problem of any sort when trying to book online, please let us know – preferably in words of one syllable, spoken slowly and carefully.

Two final irrelevant/interesting facts:

Over half our bookings for 2013 are returning guests

Over half our bookings for 2013 are returning guests, which is lovely. One couple who came three times this year return next year for their eighth visit; another will be returning to Douglas’s Barn for the ninth time. We always enjoy welcoming new faces, but we do love seeing old friends again as well.

And, this really is finally, don’t forget that 2012 prices still hold until the last minute of 2012. As Auld Lang Syne starts up, so do our 2013 prices.

Florence in a Week

Ever hopeful I started this post in Florence but never got very far through laziness? Or greed perhaps (we spent a lot of time lingering over meals in the evening) or just sheer lack of time as we packed so much into every day.

Now we are back at home, no longer have the delights of Florence to keep me distracted, and I don’t know where to start. We found so much to enjoy and gaze in awe at that, that were it not for John’s notes of each day it would already have become a pleasant whirl of wonderful memories, as rather symbolised by the marbled paper that we watched Ricardo create: blobs of colour became lines became swirls…

The first day, last Monday, was a foodie day so we’ll start with that. In the morning daughter Ruthie and I embarked on a tour with Jo of Taste Florence, while the others started – some from a position of relative strength – trying to get a grip on the art/churches/Florentine history side of things inspiring.

Ruthie and I spent the morning in the Mercato Centrale and environs, being introduced to a seemingly endless array of small privately owned shops and stalls, all selling local specialities. These ranged from prosciutto to flavoured honeys, balsamic vinegars, fresh meat and fish, breads, cakes and wine (and some of the vinegars considerably more expensive than a really good wine. There was plenty to taste and absolutely no pressure to buy, although of course we did.

Jo, from Taste Florence, was an excellent guide, very knowledgeable and infectiously enthusiastic. The tour felt more like a stroll with a friend and was a fantastic introduction to the food, the culture and the history of this part of Tuscany; during our week we went back to several of the stalls and found her list of recommended eating places an enormous help.

Having sampled enough Tuscan produce to last for the rest of our stay, we had barely time to meet Freya of Freya’s Florence Tours, who had arranged most of the exciting and very different tours in our itinerary, at the pre agreed meeting spot, for guess what, more food…

…More food and lots of excited chat, then Freya showed us round the Orsanmichel, only open on Mondays so we were lucky to be able to grab the chance to see round this grain market turned church, with some early Renaissance sculptures by the likes of Donatello.

With not much time to gather breath our next assignment was a ‘Tuscan 4-course dinner party’ cooking class organised by InTavola. This was a serious class, but as taken by Francesco and Fabrizzo, seriously enjoyable too. We prepared a starter with aubergine and tomatoes, and made ravioli from start to finish, a main course of chicken breast, mushroom and courgette and tiramisu for pud… At the end everybody sat down to a jolly meal in their cellar dining room with plenty of Italian/multi cultural conviviality.

The only other official food engagement was a pizza making class, on the Thursday. As with everything else we had been told, the emphasis is on using the very best quality food, at its freshest. No pre cooked pizza bases or sauces in a jar (not that I would, but one feels that in Italy that would be quite unthinkable).

Apart from all the fun we have had ‘learning’, we have had some seriously good food wherever we have been, whether eating freshly cooked fish at a tin table in the market or dining at smartish restaurants: seriously good food however simple, served with great courtesy and charm.

We didn’t go to Florence for the food but one certainly could.

Leave of (Very Temporary) Absence

This will really be a non-blog post, a rather negative explanation and warning of possible inaction or a surprising geographical shift. Just where is the Peak District? Are we talking Tuscany or Derbyshire? Who knows?

The truth is we’re talking both, really. For the next week we will be on a long-awaited family trip to Florence, where we shall meet up with our daughter, Sara and her Australian husband and son, Derek and Tom whom we haven’t seen for two years since our family skiing holiday (and someone broke an ankle!).

I will have minimal time and possibly even more (less?) minimal wi-fi access but I intend to try to send pictures and brief reports so let’s hoodie this proves doable.

The Mystery Shopper Challenge

As you probably know, after we, the ‘Mr and Mrs Mary Portas’ from Orchard Farm, had spent a very happy few days doing our best to identify the slightest failing Douglas’s Barn, we had been planning to focus our relentlessly beady eyes on Tom’s Barn and to be fair, enjoy a few relaxing days there too at the same time

However, after an extremely busy and long day on Friday the spirit failed and we rather weakly decided to delay until the (Saturday) morning and start on our quest feeling fresh. That was our lucky undoing. Quite late on Friday evening we received a very last minute enquiry from an eagle eyed couple who had spotted we had a gap. And less than 24 hours later they are here, and happily settled in until Wednesday. And we are still at home, foiled for the time being.

There is still one midweek break available in Tom’s Barn, Monday 10 to Friday 14 December. The normal price is £330 but because it is so soon and because it is just before Christmas and because… we would reduce the price to £295. We do actually want to stay there ourselves but we don’t like having our barns empty and anybody who would like to come has priority over us!

The snag is, we will ask you to do the mystery shopper things for us, and help us spot what needs repairing, replacing or even introducing. It does mean we would hope you would shamelessly try out everything, from DVD player to toasted sandwich maker and let us know what your findings are.

If you are dogless, there is a gap in Douglas’s Barn too, same thing goes for the price… You could try the mystery shopper role but hopefully we have got there first. Now there’s another challenge – spot our deliberate mistakes.


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