How Johann and Lisa Pepin Romance Began A Truffle Hunting And Adventure Business For All Seasons
“We put thought into every detail.”
Provence, South of France
If Paris is the city of love, then Provence is its charming sister and those of us who prize romantic charm will naturally love the offerings of Les Pastras. Located in the Luberon region where perched hilltop villages fasten the landscape, Les Pastras is a family-owned farm run by Franco American couple, Johann and Lisa Pepin. Provencal born, Johann was raised by his grandparents on the farm and met Lisa while visiting a mutual friend the USA.
"He was part of the foreign exchange program in high school and befriended a boy named Rob from Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY. Rob did his pre-law degree at the University of Wisconsin, so Johann came to the States to visit him for the summer. I had already graduated and was working at an advertising agency there when we first met," Lisa recalls. Their first encounter happened at a party three weeks shy of Johann's departure date back to France.
"The first thing he did was lie to me since he didn't think I'd go out with him knowing he was leaving so soon. But after three weeks, we were both hooked on one another. We kept up a long-distance relationship for two years, while he finished his Master's in International Economics and then completed the ten months of military service that were mandatory back then. After that, we moved to Chicago together." Lisa recalls how different their Windy City lifestyle was from life on the farm.
"Johann worked in hedge funds, and I worked in PR. He wore suits to work, and I wore designer heels." She is still amused by the look on Johann's face during his first winter in Chicago when he asked why there was a shovel in the trunk of the car. "I explained that it was to dig our car out of its parking space, something we would be doing every time it snowed, which was often."
What a difference it is to live in the countryside in Provence!
The Pepins gave little thought to moving to the South of France from Chicago. "Johann's grandparents raised him, and he was the only family they had, so we thought that we'd spend some time living in France to ensure they didn't grow old alone. At the time, I imagined we'd live in France for a while and then move on to a new adventure. It never occurred to me that I would fall in love with Provençal life and never want to leave. His childhood home is a Provençal "mas," a French word for a sizeable farmhouse that's large enough for two families, built with the idea that multiple generations would live side-by-side and work the land together," Lisa says.
For Lisa, living in her new country meant adapting. She learned that sensible shoes for a hilly Provencal village with uneven pavement worked better than designer heels and that it's better for everyone if they pick up their own pizza even if the business offers delivery. Like everyone who transitions to a new country, learning a foreign language was challenging.
Johann acted as translator in their early days. "People insisted I would just pick up French over time, but I picked it up like an old woman picks up a penny off the sidewalk. It was slow and awkward, and onlookers were unsure if the results were worth all the effort going into the attempt."
The Pepins take great pride in their farm. Lisa talks us through their history on the land and what tourists to Les Pastras can expect.
About the Farm
When we moved here in 2003, Johann got another job in finance, and I did a little bit of writing and eventually, translation work. But when the property's full-time caretaker retired, the land began to suffer. I wished aloud that there was something we could do about all the dead cherry trees in front of the house, that we could replace them with something that even soft-hands-and-face-workers like us could keep alive. Never one to let a wish go unfulfilled, Johann consulted his grandfather and the former caretaker and came up with the solution: olive trees.
Since the big freeze of 1956, it has been legal to transplant olive trees found in the wild, so that's exactly what we did. We spent our weekends' hiking, and when we found some trees, we'd come back with the car, dig them up, and bring them home. Olive trees are very hardy and require little water or pruning. Plus, they keep their leaves year-round, so a grove makes a lovely sight. Thus, our foray into "gentleman farming" began. An olive sapling costs about 15€ at a nursery, but we planted 600 for free. The property started to come to life again as its natural beauty was restored. We learned to care for trees and when to harvest apricots, almonds, olives, cherries, plums, peaches, pears, pomegranates, chestnuts, hazelnuts, and grapes.
We may not have known much about farming, but one thing we were sure of was that we didn't want to put any more chemicals into the world. Johann's cousin has a farm in the north of France, and he won't even eat the potatoes he produces. Too many pesticides! So going organic was a natural choice for us. An organic farm is notoriously more difficult to make a profit from, but at this point, we weren't selling our produce to make a living, just keeping the farm in shape because it was the right thing to do and organic was the right way to do it.
About the Region
After I met my husband, I took an interest in his homeland and read Peter Mayle's books. I was enchanted, as all his readers are, but I wondered if this beautiful, charming, quirky world could possibly be real. When I first visited, I couldn't believe my eyes. It was all there, just as he'd written: The pétanque players in the village in their berets, smoking cigarettes and whiling away the afternoon over pastis; the slim French women walking their children home from school, baguettes in hand; gruff tradesmen who may or may not be conning you; enthusiastic market vendors waxing poetic about tomatoes; chic restaurateurs serving your steak-frites in designer heels and jeans with an Hermes scarf as a belt… They were all there. I even met Babette, the woman on whom Peter Mayle based his character in A Good Year. The restaurant she owns is just one village over, and you can see why Marion Cotillard played her in the film version of the story. She is impossibly slim, with big, magic eyes and a fashion sense only a French girl could have. The stories were almost literally coming to life for me.
All of these fascinating characters existed with the Luberon as their stage and background scenery. Rolling hills that turn purple as the sun sets, vast fields of sunflowers, bees converging on fragrant lavender, grapevines heavy with this year's vintage, neat rows of cypress trees in multiples of three for good luck; sun-bleached stone houses with terra cotta tile roofs; and the bluest skies I had ever seen.
Our property, Les Pastras, has a view of much of the aforementioned natural beauty. We live in the countryside surrounding the ancient village of Cadenet, which is home to a 12th-century church and the ruins of a hilltop castle from the 11th century. The castle, called Castrum Cadenatum, was ravaged by the horrors of history and was destroyed several times. It was dismantled in the 17th century on the orders of Louis XIV and then burnt by the revolutionaries in 1792. It was never restored but on the contrary, disassembled stone by stone during the nineteenth century. "Les Pastras" is old Provencale for "the pastures," and given our proximity to the castle, it is likely that the royal sheep made their winter home here.
These days, the tourists flock to nearby Lourmarin to see its perfectly intact castle, leaving the village of Cadenet to the locals. Cadenet is decidedly less pretty than the surrounding villages, but being here offers a more authentic French countryside experience than the villages with door-to-door boutiques, cafés, and art galleries, a sentiment one local put into writing last summer when they scrawled "Provence Disneyland" on the street sign pointing in the direction of Lourmarin.
Our introduction to the world of truffles happened when our British neighbours were told that the people who used to own their house used to find truffles there. They asked Johann if he knew anyone who could verify that, so he called on his childhood friend, Jean-Marc, who had trained his two dogs to find truffles. We found some on their land with ease, which made Jean-Marc speculate that others in the neighbourhood might have truffles as well. It became our weekend ritual. We'd go to a neighbour's house, find truffles, stop in to split the find with the landowner 50/50, have a drink and a chat, then move on to do the same at the next neighbour's house. When people asked us what we did over the weekend, and we described this activity, the reaction was always the same, "Can I come along next time? I'd pay to do that!"
We started taking tourists on truffle hunts and planting truffle oaks in earnest after that. We take visitors on a comprehensive tour of the property, during which they learn its history, the history of truffle cultivation, the organic concept of the farm, and how the dogs are trained. Then the dogs arrive, and the hunt begins. Finding truffles is more special once you know how much work goes into the process. People often assume that hunting is the hard part, but the dogs are well-trained and find truffles with relative ease. The difficult part is making sure there are truffles out there to be found. The soil must have the proper Ph, composition, water, and sunlight to support the growth of truffles. And even then, there's no guarantee that the truffle sapling you paid 15€ for will ever grow truffles and you'll need to wait five to ten years to find out whether your gamble paid off.
After the hunt comes the best part: tasting. We serve a selection of simple truffle canapés that are designed to educate the palate and that crescendo with a tastebud-dazzling truffle ice cream drizzled with truffle honey. Each canapé is preceded by instruction on how to clean, store, and cook with truffles. We also educate our guests with tips on the best night of the week to dine out for freshest truffles and how to spot a frozen truffle when a restaurant serves it to you. Our goal is to make sure that guests leave Les Pastras with the knowledge necessary to prepare truffles and truffle products in their kitchens and to be savvy connoisseurs when dining out.
As for what makes us different, we like to think that it's us. Strangers show up for the truffle hunt, but by the time they leave, they have become friends. Our "all you care to drink champagne" policy probably helps with that. We have travelled a lot and wanted to create something that we, as travellers, would enjoy. So we put thought into every detail. Canapés are served on silver platters for prettiest Instagram shots. There are heaters, cozy blankets, and candles for winter hunts. Rainy-day guests are given umbrellas with a sunny sky scene to hold over their heads. The tasting takes place in the summer kitchen out by the pool, which has a glorious view of the olive groves and is the perfect place to view the sunset. We even planted several rows of lavender that have a view of the property in the background for families to take photos with. We don't have guest rooms on the property, but we try to make the time people spend here as magical as possible.
After the truffle hunts became popular, the business evolved to include olive harvests and grape stomps once we realized all the bucket-list opportunities our little farm could provide to travellers yearning for an authentic Provence experience. Jean-Marc had a full-time job at a local vineyard at the time, so he had lots of contacts in the wine industry. He and Johann set out to find a barrel big enough for the grape stomps I was envisioning. Every time they sent me a photo of a possibility, I always texted back, "Bigger." Finally, I had to go online and show them the I Love Lucy episode that was inspiring my vision. They understood and purchased an entire 2000 litre barrel that we sawed in half and refinished for two giant tubs that can hold six enthusiastic grape stompers each.
During the grape stomps, which are held for September, we pick some grapes, then turn on the Edith Piaf and pass out the red bandannas for people to tie in their hair and start dancing! People always say they don't think they'll want to taste the juice that everyone's feet have been in, but they always cave and give it a try! After the grapes have been well and truly conquered, we retire to the summer kitchen for copious trays of fruit, nuts, cheese, charcuterie, pâté, crudité, bread, and plenty of wine. We teach guests a French drinking song or two, and people usually share songs from their home countries. In November we pick olives, which is an hour or so of lovely work in the sun followed by the same food, drink, and merriment.
After a truffle hunt one day, Jean-Marc remarked on how lucky he feels to get paid to do something that was formerly just a hobby that he did for fun. He said that he wished that he could get paid to pursue all his hobbies. Not one to let an opportunity pass me by, I asked what his other hobbies are. And voila! We now take guests fishing, foraging for herbs and fossils, mushroom hunting, and give pétanque lessons. Each activity is in a different location depending on what space is available, which secret spots are growing the best mushrooms, and what's biting at any given moment. What remains the same is Jean-Marc's mobile bar, which he pops up no matter the location and serves homemade pastis, red wine, rosé, walnut wine, pickled mushrooms, wild boar pate, and tapenade. Who doesn't love a little adventure, followed by a picnic?
Since Johann's grandparents passed away in 2017, we've been renovating the house to make the most of the space available and will have a large reception room where we can host bigger groups, including corporate events. We also ordered a custom-built old oak dining room table that seats 14 in the hopes of someday making pop-up truffle dinners with guest chefs.
Plans for the Future
We have lots of new things in the works and are looking forward to some amazing changes in 2020 (in addition to our renovations), including:
- Our new puppy! Caramel is a 5-month-old dachshund-terrier mix and is learning the truffle hunting trade from Jean-Marc and the other two dogs. He began his first hunts at Les Pastras in December 2019, and we're looking forward to big things from his small nose. He's already a guest favourite and loves to have his picture taken.
- Going green! We've been really conscious about the impact that shipping truffles next-day all over the world has on the environment. We've recently worked a deal with DHL to ensure that each package we send is carbon neutral, no matter its destination, at no extra cost to the clients.
- Pétanque court. It's sometimes difficult to find a good place for guests to play. Often, locals are using the best spots for tournaments or weekly markets get in the way. And even then, we sometimes have to cancel the activity when weather is bad. With all this land at our disposal, we've decided to construct a pétanque course with a roof to provide shade and protect from the rain where we can host guests no matter what the weather.
- Short stories. Ryan Jacobs's book, Truffle Underground, was amazing, but it left us wanting more. At the same time, we find we never have enough time during our tours to tell all the stories about the fascinating and dramatic world of Provence truffle hunting. So we're working on a book of short stories that guests will have the option to purchase at the end of their time here if we've left them wanting more and they're looking for something to read on the plane ride home.
Les Pastras is a memorable experience. From cultural and culinary adventures to outdoor activities, Johann and Lisa have planned thoughtful perfections into the right seasons.