Truffle Hunts and Grape Stomps: A Richer Life and Business in the South of France
Johann and Lisa Pepin left the chilly winters of Chicago, Illinois to start an organic farm, Les Pastras, in Provence, France. Along with offering guests tailor-made truffle hunting excursions, the couple also hosts grape stomps during the month of September that comprise “the stomp” itself, a cheese and charcuterie buffet, all you can drink of their own red wine, and olive oil and truffle oil tastings.
Lisa sat down with me to share her thoughts on what propelled their move from the U.S., and what makes living in the south of France such a magical experience.
Q: What made you decide to move to France?
Lisa: Our life in Chicago couldn’t have been more different than our life here in Provence. Johann worked in hedge funds and I worked in PR. His office in downtown Chicago was on the 30th floor of the building. Meanwhile, mine was in a building so vast that our electronic scheduling system automatically factored in 10 minutes to walk from one side of the company to the other. He wore suits to work and I wore designer heels. Now the heels do nothing but take up space in our closets.
Our apartment building was on Sheridan Road, a four-lane street so busy that we couldn’t open the window if we wanted to watch TV because the traffic was just too loud. But it wasn’t all bad. City life is a blast when you’re young. We had a wonderful group of friends and a constant stream of invitations to barbecues, birthday parties, new restaurants.
But what a difference it is to live in the countryside in Provence.
We gave little thought to the big move, to be honest. 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 thought 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 Provencal life and never want to leave.
Q: How was the idea for Les Pastras born?
Lisa: When we moved here in 2003, Johann got another job in finance and I did a little bit of writing. 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. 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 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 (US$17) at a nursery, but we planted 600 for free.
Our introduction to the world of truffles happened when our British neighbors 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 a 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 neighborhood might have truffles as well. It became our weekend ritual. We’d go to a neighbor’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 neighbor’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 after that. From there, the business evolved into olive harvests and grape stomps once we realized all the bucket-list opportunities our little farm could provide to travelers yearning for an authentic Provence experience.
Q: What’s the best part of your job?
Lisa: It may sound like a cliché, but the very best part of our work is the people. Whenever I read the news and start to feel like the world is a terrible place, I just have to remember the countless people from all over the world who came to our farm and brought us a gift, even though we had never even met before. When we had office jobs, nobody ever told us we inspired them. I wish everyone could know what it’s like to have a job this fulfilling.
Q: How would you describe your life in France?
Lisa: Living out in the countryside, we feel connected to nature in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible in the States. We eat cherries, figs, plums, and apricots right off our trees. We can tell how cold the upcoming winter will be by the number of acorns that fall in autumn. We see stars that weren’t visible in Chicago’s night sky. Our eggs come from our friend’s chickens and ducks, and our compost goes to feed them. Our big paychecks from our office jobs are a thing of the past, but here, we truly feel rich.
By Tuula Rampont