Luberon Diary: The truffes about truffles

Third in our series, American Lisa Pepin chronicles life on a Luberon farm.

July 27, 2013

Earlier in the year, in my typical American fashion, I shared with my husband my enthusiasm about how wonderful all of our tour guests had been so far. And staying true to his duty as a Frenchman, he brought me back down to earth by reminding me that although we had been fortunate, not all tourists were going to be as lovely. Eventually, he said, there would be a bad apple. You can’t please everybody, after all.

Well, with four months of summer truffle tours under our belts, I feel I am in the position to officially disagree with him. Without exception, our groups have been absolutely delightful.

Visitors at Les PastrasPhoto: Adi Bukman Photography

First there was the affable American doctor whose slippery loafers sent him tumbling down a hill. He popped back up immediately, shouting, “I’m okay! And don’t worry. I’m not going to sue!” He then set about picking up all the truffles he had dropped to ensure nothing was lost.

Shortly afterward arrived the elegant young woman from Hong Kong whose truffle-hunting attire fashioned a silk top and lace shorts with flip-flops. When the uneven Provençal terrain proved too much for her footwear and one broke beneath her, she gamely took them off and braved the sharp, weedy terrain barefoot. Back at the house, she surveyed the bottles of truffle oil on display and asked, “Do you really give half the profits to orphans? In that case, I’ll take ten, please.”

And then came the Australians. The truffle hors d’oeuvres and Champagne portion of the tour (punctuated with instructions on how to properly clean, store and cook with truffles) lasted an epic three hours as we opened bottle after bottle of bubbly, and shared our passions for wine, food and travel. They invited us to dinner at their rental house the next day, and to visit with them in the Dordogne the following week.

Another group of Australians surprised us by returning home and promptly mailing a thank you letter with photos of their time at Les Pastras, as well as a newspaper article about truffle-hunting Down Under. We were so touched, I actually got a little misty, almost as misty as when the wife of a prominent American department store owner hugged me goodbye and said, “I feel like I made a friend today.”

Those “bad apples” may be on their way, but I prefer to remain optimistic.

August 1, 2013

We promise guests dramatic tales of success and sabotage on our tours, but sometimes I’m afraid we over-deliver. Occasionally they leave concerned, rather fearful for our wellbeing. This may be because of the following true story, which happened to the friend of a friend.

At his local café, he was enjoying a pastis while listening to the locals talking about truffles. It’s a well-known fact that many hunters will train their dogs to sniff out truffles, if they can. And since they already have the legal right to walk on to any unfenced property in France without permission or supervision, why wouldn’t they?

Well, it seems that this particular man had heard enough, for nothing pleases a Provençal farmer more than topping someone else's story. He reached in his jacket and pulled out a truffle weighing 150 grams. He deftly avoided questions about where it came from and gratefully accepted free congratulatory drinks from his so-called friends.

Many drinks later, he felt sufficiently flushed with alcohol and goodwill to reveal that he had an even larger truffle in his jacket pocket. He placed the 250-gram truffle, nearly twice the size of a baseball, on the café table. And not much after, he admitted to his admirers that he had found it on his very own property.

The next morning, bleary-eyed and hungover, the man woke to find that someone had come to his land in the middle of the night and spitefully taken a chainsaw to every one of the truffle oak trees on his small but prosperous grove. This was clearly the work of poachers who already had an ample supply of their own but wanted to eliminate the competition. Loose lips do indeed sink ships in a very dramatic way when it comes to truffles.

August 6, 2013

Our modern lives are filled with stimuli – visual, auditory and tactile – but as Proust (and his famous madeleines) will attest, our sense of smell is the one that tugs most at the heartstrings. It is also the least meaningfully engaged on a daily basis.

We try to submerse city folk from around the world in the full sensory experience of the countryside during our tours. And even those who have been to Provence before come away enchanted. It’s one thing to have a dish in a restaurant that features fennel, bay leaves, rosemary or sage; it’s quite another to brush past the plant and detect the aroma perfume the air as you walk by. Or what about the incomparable olfactory explosion that takes place when you rub the surface of a fig leaf?

Recently, we hosted a group of six who had been to Provence numerous times. They had visited the lavender fields northeast of Bonnieux and assured us that they didn’t need to stop and smell our lavender. But Johann insisted. Those famous purple fields are beautifully coloured, but they actually contain lavandin (not lavender), which has a more vibrant colour but is exponentially less fragrant. Amazed, they enthusiastically smelled everything else he recommended on the tour, thanking him repeatedly for a genuine lavender experience.

August 16, 2013

As the summer truffle season draws to a close, we are focusing our attention on upcoming events. Our annual November 1st olive-picking party, formerly attended only by friends, will now be open to paying guests (up to 8 in total) who will take part in a traditional olive harvest as it has been done in France for hundreds of years.

No tree-rattling machines shake the fruit to the ground here. Each organic olive is picked by hand. And in accordance with tradition, we serve our workers a hearty lunch of daube, saffron potatoes au gratin, ratatouille, cheese and dessert, with all the local wine they care to drink, naturally. Then, after another few hours of picking olives in the Provençal sunshine, we gather for a Champagne toast to celebrate our efforts. For more info see www.lespastras.com or to reserve email directly: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The response to this idea has been predictable. My expat friends are enthusiastic and full of questions. Can my family join in? How many places are available? How soon can we book? Johann’s French friends are full of questions, too. Are you serious? People are going to pay YOU to pick your olives? Has the whole world gone mad?

August 23, 2013

We assumed that night-time raids by sangliers would be the most serious threat to the success of our truffle tours. As it turns out, the distinction goes to … summer rainstorms. They never seem to fall on a day when we don’t have a tour scheduled. But when we do, the sky grows dark and menacing, then bursts forth with one of those impressive thunderstorms that rattles the shutters and knocks out the power. Three tours had to be cancelled due to inclement weather, and with most holiday itineraries scheduled to ensure not a minute is wasted, only one group was able to re-book and take the tour another day. Murphy’s Law applies even in France, it seems.

TRUFFLE TIP
If you are using truffles to make an omelette or risotto, store them in Tupperware with the uncracked eggs or rice overnight. The next day, you will find that the aroma and flavour of the truffle have permeated the rice and even the shell of the eggs!