Luberon Diary: The family tree

Forget genealogy. American Lisa Pepin explains how anyone could have roots in the Luberon.

Luberon

August 22, 2013

My husband Johann and I, like the rest of France in August, took two weeks off. Or so we thought. Today we were lounging poolside when a car pulled up in the driveway. A very prim French woman got out, shook our hands, said she was from the government and that she had come to discuss our olive oil. She was going to pick up her colleague and would be back to speak to us in an hour.

That hour was fraught with anxiety. Why on earth would the government want to talk to us about our olive oil? How did they even know about us? What had we done wrong? As we calmed our nerves by sharing what I admit was a very large glass of rosé, we became suspicious. Since when does the French government conduct business in August, let alone make unannounced house calls? We changed into more respectable-looking clothing, just in case.

She returned right on time and along with her associate presented us with their official identification. They proceeded to question us about our business, quickly getting to the matter of how much olive oil Les Pastras produces. When we answered about 60 litres, their faces fell. “That’s all?” they asked. “But all these articles about you …” They produced a stack of printed pages from blogs mentioning our olive and truffle oils.

“French food bloggers are happy to write about your product if you send them a free sample,” I explained. “We send out a lot of échantillons.”

All the online publicity had given the impression that we were a big producer blatantly flouting the law by not labelling our bottles properly. (Something we’d have been happy to do if those guidelines were actually available anywhere.) But I suppose publishing this would deprive these ladies of the opportunity to tour the Provence countryside in August at the taxpayers’ expense, searching for rule breakers. They advised us on how to revise our labelling and left, clearly crestfallen that they hadn’t caught the big fish they were after.

September 10, 2013

Johann is an easy man to shop for. All he wants are trees. No new shirts, books, gadgets or tickets to sporting events. Just trees. So when my family came for a visit, we took them on the grand tour and they asked us to point out where “their” trees were. As we showed them where their birthday and Christmas gifts to Johann were planted, an idea took root.

Why not let people adopt a truffle or olive tree at Les Pastras and send them a yearly shipment of products from “their” tree? A couple of Italian companies are doing this already, but they charge a hefty yearly maintenance fee and only send the tree’s adoptive family something if that particular tree produces. Given that a truffle tree can take 8 to 10 years to produce (and some don’t generate at all), it’s a gamble.

Les Pastra Olive Oil Photo: Scott Cejka PhotographySo we decided that our program would send truffles or olive oil no matter what the adopted tree yields. Everybody gets a shipment for their annual fee, just like a Wine of the Month Club. Visitors to the property can choose their own tree on the spot or online customers can send the tree as a gift. Who wouldn’t like that? We shall soon discover the answer to that question as we officially unveil on our site Adopt-a-Tree, just in time for Christmas.

September 25, 2013

Our new labels arrived today, with a surprise in store. Johann re-named our olive oil “Cuvée Lisa” to signify that this is the first Les Pastras oil made with olives from trees we planted ourselves. He’s crediting me with the idea for planting them when he really does all the hard work. And while this doesn’t seem quite fair, it’s really sweet of him. So I’m going to let it slide.

Our next step is to have the property inspected and certified as organic so that we can officially label our products bio in France. Though this process will take years and be very expensive, I have to say that I appreciate France’s diligence when it comes to accurate food labelling. As an American, I wish my homeland was as conscientious about informing people about exactly what’s on their plates. So, for once, when faced with a mountain of French paperwork and fees, I’ll smile and say, “Vive la France.

Truffles on ToastOctober 20, 2013

With the summer truffle season at an end and the olive harvest not yet begun, you wouldn’t think there would be much to report during the month of October. But we had another “first” today. An American family who visited our website and read our story wanted to see the property so badly that they offered to pay for a tour even sans truffle-hunting. How could we say no to such enthusiasm?

The charming group of six even brought a truffle they had purchased at a market near Gordes. While Johann gave them the grand tour, I sliced and prepared their little truffle on toast with salted butter and just a drizzle of truffle oil to punch up the flavour, since it was a specimen from the very end of the season, when they get a bit bland. Three hours and several bottles of Champagne later, we had made some new friends. Restaurant and hotel owners in Provence may sigh with relief when tourist season comes to an end, but we can’t wait for it to start up again.