Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Days of Wine and Truffles

Very quickly after I launched my new company Provence Post Travel---arranging amazing vacations in Provence for couples, families and groups of all sizes--I learned how much my clients love activities that get them up close and personal with real life in Provence….the special experiences I arrange for them with artists, farmers, fishermen, winemakers, bread bakers, chefs, guides and more. Travelers these days definitely want to meet interesting locals who love to share their passions.

For example? At our local goat farm, clients love seeing the animals and then tasting the fresh goat cheeses with the farmer who just made them. They love biking with a charming chef who provides a gourmet picnic along the way. They've loved meeting artisan food-makers in Aix and walking in Roman footsteps with an American blogger in Arles. They’ve experienced vineyard barbecues with winemakers and olive oil-tastings with the young woman who tends hundreds of her family's trees and presses award-winning oils. I’ve sent clients out wine tasting with a charming bake croissants and make nougat at a traditional boulangerie…to slice and dice with Michelin-starred chefs…to comparison-taste homemade honey with a third-generation beekeeper…to ride gorgeous horses on a windswept Camargue tour lush, hidden gardens and learn about the visionaries who created them. I’ve sent private chefs to prepare special dinners in scores of rental villas…and sent kids to sculpting class with my favorite local potter.  This week some clients sipped chilled Pastis in the sunshine while learning to play boules on the village pitch. Loved it!

So now that I know what how appealing these activities are, I’m working on a Menu of Delicious Provence Experiences that I’ll be publishing here soon. In the meantime, here’s one that I just couldn’t wait to share.

Lisa and Johann Pepin are a Franco American couple who moved to the South of France from Chicago in 2003 to take over the Pepin family vineyard and find a better quality of life. (That’s the press release version of the story. What really happened is that Johann’s grandparents really missed him and were dying for him to come home … so they bribed the younger couple by offering up the family farmhouse as a gift. How sweet is that?)

So just like on Green Acres (remember?), the Pepins traded in their high-flying jobs in finance and PR for fresh air, starry skies and organic farming in the bucolic Luberon region of Provence. That was ten years ago. Today their 11-hectare farm Les Pastras (in Cadenet, near Lourmarin) produces grapes, olives, apricots, cherries, plums, apples, pears, pomegranates, figs, almonds, hazelnuts and—wait for it--black winter truffles. Yes, la famille Pepin must have done something right in a past life because they own 50 mature olive trees and another 320 trees (that they they planted themselves—yikes!)  and a stand of oak that regularly produce the prized tuber melanasporum, AKA truffes noirs, AKA Black Gold. They also produce tuber aestivum--white summer truffles--as well.

“Most foodies are familiar with the famous Perigord truffle,” Lisa tells me, “but what they don’t know is that those pricey morsels are the same sort that you find at Les Pastras and across Provence, which is where 80% of black truffles are produced. The Perigord region has just done a vastly better job of marketing themselves to truffle lovers.”    

The olive oils, meanwhile, are 100% organic, extra-virgin and cold pressed, made with olives from trees that were grown in the wild and have never been treated with chemicals of any kind. Also, they don't plump their olives unnaturally using a water-wasting irrigation system; any extra water their trees need comes from collected rainwater.

Because they are just totally cool people all around, Lisa and Johann decided early on that they would give 50% of their olive oil and truffle oil profits to the One Family Orphanage in Dargout, Haiti, where their close friend Kelsey works.  For the time being, the oils are sold only at the farm and online, but they’re currently working on distribution in the U.S. and beyond. So if you visit, be sure to take a bottle or two home! Or order from the website here.

So here’s where the experience comes in:  Lisa and Johann are now offering seasonal tours, tastings and truffle lunches.  All tours come with a free wine tasting and olive oil tasting. Depending on timing and weather, they may also include olive picking, grape harvesting, a game of boules or even a truffle hunt.

You currently have two options, both offered during Winter (January 1 to March 10) and Summer truffle season (May 1 - Sept. 30).

#1. Take a tour of the truffle plantation, learn how truffles are cultivated and truffle dogs are trained, and then sniff out some of your own, with professional hunters who know all the tricks.  You'll be regaled with stories of success and sabotage, and learn to tell the difference between a real Provençal truffe and its Chinese and Italian cousins (which the French of course deem far inferior.) Tours are conducted in English. Then, enjoy a glass or two of Champagne (made by Johann’s cousins) and a generous sampling of truffles on toast with salted butter.  Price: 50€ per person. Includes: Hunting tour, Champagne, truffles on toast. For 4 to 12 people. Available: 11 am Saturdays and Sundays during winter and summer truffle seasons.

#2. Do all the above and then stay for lunch, to try a fabulous foie-gras stuffed truffle burger and truffle fries, plus dessert, coffee, petit fours and all the regional wine you care to drink. (Lisa, a hard-core foodie, based her burger recipe on the famous one created by New York chef Daniel Boulud.) Price: 85€ per person winter, 75€ summer. Includes: Truffle-hunting tour, Champagne and truffles on toast, lunch with truffle menu and wine. Tours available: 11 am Saturdays and Sundays during winter and summer truffle seasons. Guests: 4-8 in winter, 4-12 in summer.

For more info or to book, see the Les Pastras website here. To reach Lisa or Johann directly, email: And for more fabulous Provence experiences you can share with family and friends, stay tuned….

Photos: Lisa and Johann do their best American Gothic; Green Acres and black truffles at Les Pastras; 50% of  olive- and truffle-oil profits go to an orphanage in Haiti so order often and order lots!


  1. Julie, I have always wanted to do one of their truffle tours! It sounds absolutely like the real deal and I love that they are committed to giving back as well. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Julie, Truffle hunting was on my bucket list, so last November 17th, we join Jean Pierre at les Ursalines near Valreas for a private truffle hunt on his property. Imagine our excitement when. Gina, the truffle dog alerted us to a number of good sized truffles even though it was early in the season. We shared 2 of them with Jean Pierre and the delightful couple we were staying with by slicing a Brie across and adding thinly sliced truffles. The top of the Brie was then replaced and wrapped so that the flavor permeated the Brie. We got this recipe from one of the owners of Solitude in Chateauneuf du Pape. Jean Pierre also escorted us to the Ban du Truffe ceremony, market and truffle luncheon. What a great day and a dream come true. Also very reasonable!

  3. This sounds like a wonderful tour for the value! I will definitely add this to my list for our next visit to Provence! x Katie

  4. Another winner, Julie, brava. Your guests will be delighted with your suggestions and have wonderful Provencal experiences. We will arrange to do one of these this summer. Meanwhile the Film Festival carnival in Cannes! Love, Jackie & Burton

  5. I had some of my musician friends from Cadenet telling me about Lisa recently... :) bisous

  6. 24/7 in France: Hands-on and getting 'down and dirty' with local artisans is indeed the best way to experience the culture - congratulations on launching your new company et bonne continuation!

  7. Julie, thanks so much for this tip! Perfect timing as my family and I are traveling to the Luberon in two weeks for vacation. Truffle hunting with kids perhaps?



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