We are halfway through our sixth year as holiday-cottage proprietors, and like anyone in this business, we could write a book about our experiences. Actually, I have. In fact I've written two. In the first, Tales of the Country, I related the story of the dice we found under the bed in Manor Cottage, shortly after the departure of a rather frumpy-looking couple in late middle age. These were no ordinary dice. Forgive me for venturing into Catherine Townsend territory, but on one was written six parts of the body: hands, feet, stomach, bottom, chest, genitals. On the other was written six actions: kiss, rub, stroke, lick, suck and (the highly intriguing) wash.
Jane and I wondered whether to have a go, but in the end decided against. Going right back to my snakes-and-ladders days, I have never been very lucky with dice, and, anticipating the combination I would almost certainly throw, I knew that I would find no titillation in having my stomach washed, like someone being prepared for an abdominal operation.
In my latest book about life in the country, The Pheasants' Revolt, I tell the tale of Mr and Mrs Usher, who booked their long weekend 18 months in advance and ordered a meal for their night of arrival, specifying that they didn't want rhubarb. We wondered whether to give them a meal with a rhubarb theme, apologising that we normally require two years' notice of dietary requirements, and 18 months wasn't quite enough. But we didn't, of course. The Ushers duly enjoyed a dinner for two that was entirely rhubarb-free.
Over the past year, interestingly enough, there has been a sharp increase in specific dietary requests. Since we started in the cottaging business, as my friends like to call it, Jane has been offering two-course meals for those who want them. About 20 per cent of visitors avail themselves of this service, of whom, until this year, fewer than 5 per cent revealed their food needs. This year, it has risen to about 50 per cent. Whether because there are more folk with allergies, or just because more folk with allergies are visiting north Herefordshire, I don't know.
Either way, we are happy to oblige. But catering for dietary requirements can sometimes be a thankless task. An elderly pair of women stayed in Yewtree Cottage a couple of months back, one of them having both written and phoned beforehand to say that, although they would like dinner on the night they arrived, could we be mindful of her friend's abnormally high cholesterol count. Knowing this, Jane did not prepare the usual welcome hamper, which might typically contain bread baked in Leominster, Weobley butter and Hereford Hop cheese. Instead, she filled it with this county's wonderful apples and plums.
The two women duly arrived, and within five minutes, one of them was rapping at our back door. "It says in your brochure that you provide a welcome hamper," she said, crossly. "We do," Jane said, "didn't I leave it in your cottage?" "A few apples and half a dozen plums?" the woman snapped. "I don't call that much of a welcome hamper."
Jane was both flabbergasted and upset. "But one of you has high cholesterol. That's why I left fruit."
"That's right, Dulcie's on a strict diet," came the reply, "but I'm not."
Hot on the heels of Dulcie and her friend, we had two couples staying in Yewtree Cottage who wanted a meal to celebrate a birthday, with the complication that one was a coeliac (no gluten) and another was lactose intolerant (no dairy). Had a third been a vegan and the fourth an Atkins dieter, Jane's ingenuity in the kitchen would have been pushed to the limit. As it was, she rose to the challenge, although not before we had debated whether you can give celeriac to a coeliac, and what we might do if they arrived in a Pontiac wearing Pacamacs, eating Caramacs, and talking about their recent vac in Sarawak.
I fear that my disrespectful levity on the topic of food allergies might result in a letter or two, so let me pre-empt them by saying that, as a former chronic hay-fever sufferer (until we moved to the country, strangely enough), I sympathise with anyone seriously allergic to anything. But I have to face the unpalatable truth. I am becoming food-intolerance intolerant.
Brian Viner's book, The Pheasants' Revolt, is published by Simon & Schuster, £12.99