I am not alone in becoming a creature of habit, especially on the weekends when I prefer to stay close to home. Everything I need is a step away from my doorstep – the beach, the Promenade and the roads to the backcountry for cycling. With the best intention of taking advantage of living in France and visiting one of the country’s 36,000 plus communes over a weekend, Monday rolls around and I’ve gone no further than my boulangerie.
So when I heard about a truffle hunting tour at Les Pastras in Cadenet, about 30km north of Aix en Provence, which is operated by a Franco-American couple, I thought, okay, this time let’s do it. So husband and dog in tow, we jumped on the A8 to Aix and then headed north on the A51 to exit 15.
Now many longer-term residents on the Riviera have developed Peter Mayle Syndrome (known more familiarly as PMS, you may have heard of it), an inflammation brought on by the irritating and often illiterate “lunch genre” novels, copycat tales of living with the French that revolve around eating, of which Mr Mayle opened the door to. And yet no matter how you feel about A Year in Provence, once you enter the Bouches du Rhône and the Luberon, you cannot deny the uniqueness and attractiveness of the region and suddenly, you may even make the occasional Maylesque observation.
Our visit to the Cadenet was no exception. Driving up the narrow road leading to Les Pastras, an 11-hectare organic farm with “the house with the red shutters” (pictured above), we were warmly greeted by Lisa and Johann Pepin (pictured left). Johann and Lisa met in Wisconsin in 1997 before moving to Chicago and getting married in 2002. I’m leaving out a few minor details along the way but in 2003 they decided to trade the American world of finance and PR to go green in the Luberon. Johann is no stranger to the region. He spent his childhood here, as this was his grandfather’s home. Lisa on the other hand was seen as a foreigner and shares the story of how there were bets at the local bar to see how long “the American” would last. “I’m still here,” she says smiles. But there’s no smugness in her statement; she loves her life in France and her happiness is apparent.
Eleven hectares is a lot of land, and Lisa and Johann are “gentlemen farmers”: they each have a day job, but on the weekends they, along with Johann’s 90-year-old grandfather, who fantastically was a WWII veteran and part of the French Resistance, roll up their sleeves and work on their land. Among other things, they produce grapes, olives, apricots, figs, almonds and, as they discovered, truffles. They even have bees.
It’s a lot of manual labour. As an example, take their 320 olive trees (pictured right). Since the freeze of 1956 when sap froze so quickly that trees exploded destroying two-thirds of the olive trees in Provence, there are no laws forbidding you to re-root olive trees growing in the forests. For Lisa and Johann, rather than ordering a bunch of saplings from, say, the English Garden Group, they have themselves trekked into the woods and dug up the olive trees with their 30 to 40 kilos roots, and transported them back to Les Pastras where they then have re-planted all 320 of them with their own hands. And this is just one part of their harvest.
Last year, Lisa and Johann decided to offer truffle-hunting tours (in the summer, too) in English. The beauty of their tour is that you don’t have to go into the middle of a forest and freeze your truffles off. The mas, which dates back in part to the end of the 18 century, is never far away. If you want to finally learn about truffles, and have the stories to impress your visiting friends and family, this is place for you. As they say, it’s a “behind the scene look at truffles filled with stories of successes and sabotage”. But the concept wouldn’t work as successfully if the hosts weren’t as engaging in their storytelling and good-humoured hospitality as the Pepins. Oh, and there’s the amazing food, that can be enjoyed poolside.
Visit a Provençal truffle plantation, discover how truffles are cultivated and how truffle dogs are trained. For fun, go on a hunt for France's elusive "black gold" with professional hunters who know all the tricks of the trade. Develop a truffle eye: spot the difference between a Provençal tuber melanosporum and its inferior Chinese and Italian counterparts.
Champagne and fresh truffles on toast with salted butter (pictured), wine and olive oil tasting, followed by a Truffle burger (modelled after Daniel Boulud's recipe, it’s a burger stuffed with foie gras, bacon and truffles, then topped with more truffles) served with a side of truffle fries, and all the regional wine you care to drink. Dessert and coffee included.
I didn’t know that it takes 30 grams of truffles to make one litre of truffle oil. At Les Pastras, they sell organic olive oil and the most heavenly organic truffle oil, which they can ship to the US (and elsewhere). Fifty percent of every bottle of olive oil sold goes to OneFamily, an orphanage in Haiti that Lisa and Johann have a personal connection to.
Les Pastras is everything we associate with the French – olives and oils, truffles and wine – but in English. For me, the opportunity to experience first hand another person’s slice of France and all the insightful storytelling that goes along with it, is worth the drive to Cadenet.
About a five minute drive from Cadenet is the tiny village of Cucuron, recognised for a scene in "A Good Year", when Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard kissed in the rain at the end of their date. As if part of a movie scene the unassuming restaurant La Petite Maison de Cucuron is stage left. Chef Eric Sapet is a star. I realise a star from me doesn’t have the same weight as that from Michelin or Hollywood, but Sapet has found his biggest fans some 250km away from his kitchen. La Petite Maison represents everything foreigners romanticise about a medieval village restaurant in the heart of the Luberon: glorious traditional French dishes paraded to your white linen clothed table over the course of hours. Food so luscious you don’t want to finish it because you can never taste the exact combination of deliciousness again, even if you ordered the same meal the next day. I would not be lying in saying my contact lens popped out of my eye when I tasted my entrée – that’s the power of Sapet’s €46 menu:
Amuse bouche of scallops with caviar on toastSea bass with pepper purée and a "runny" egg
French beef with foie gras pan seared and stuffed vegetables with a side of mushroom broth, with chestnuts and beef
Shortcake with caramelised pecans, over Nutella served with ice cream and warm apple purée
A mouthful was caramel panna cotta with madeleines and coffee, for the road home
Johann and Lisa Pepin at Les Pastras and the dog-friendly La Petite Maison de Cucuron provide a perfect change of scenery from the Riviera Coast, at only a two and half hour drive it's a day away you won't soon forget. Isn’t it time to get out of your comfort zone?