Truffle hunting France in gorgeous Provence

Written by on April 23, 2014 in French Cuisine, Provence-Alpes

les pastras

Ah Provence… the beauty of the landscape, sunshine, vineyards, lavender and sunflower fields, medieval villages, pastel shutters, winding roads and olive orchards. Now there’s something else to add to your Provence bucket list – truffle hunting in the most magnificent location in Provence. Go behind the scenes of the world’s most secretive business and most expensive natural food produce. Learn how truffles are cultivated and how truffle dogs are trained and then hunt for the elusive “black gold” with professional hunters and toast your find with Champagne and truffle delicacies…

Johann and Lisa Pepin have a mysterious and rather exotic job – they are truffle hunters who share their skills, know-how, beautiful Provence countryside and truffles with visitors…

It wasn’t always this way for the young couple. They met at a party in Wisconsin when Johann, who is from Provence, was spending summer with a friend in the US. When he returned to France, Lisa stayed in touch with him.  They fell in love, moved to Chicago and got married; both had office jobs – Lisa in PR and Johann in hedge funds. So how, you might ask, did they become truffle hunters in France?!

vineyards of provence

Lisa reveals that they moved to Provence in 2003 to take over “Johann’s family’s vineyard, Les Pastras, after the full-time caretaker retired”. They had 11 hectares of grapevines, olive trees, truffle oaks, cherries, plums, peaches, apricots, pomegranates, almonds and hazelnut to look after.

A few years after they started their new French lives, their new British neighbours asked them about the rumour that the previous owners used to find truffles in the garden of the house they’d just bought. Johann’s childhood friend Jean-Marc is a renowned truffle hunter and visited the British neighbours’ house. Almost immediately he found a huge truffle. Lisa says “it was jump-up-and-down exciting”, understandably so since truffles are one of the most expensive food products in the world!

Jean-Marc decided to explore Lisa and Johann’s vineyard and they were thrilled to find yet more truffles at the base of ancient oak trees. Johann says “We are lucky enough to have the prized black Perigord truffle (tuber melanosporum) and summer truffles (tuber aestivum) on our property”.

Les pastras owners The story of their incredible find spread and friends started to ask if they could come and see for themselves and follow the dogs on their hunts. Lisa says “It soon became clear that this was a unique Provençal adventure that needed to be shared and we now offer tours in both winter and summer truffle seasons”.

It is a wonderful success story and the couple have worked very hard to ensure that the land is well cared for and the truffles can thrive and continue for generations to come. They plant new trees and farm organically and they keep their location secret. Such is the lure of these famous “black diamonds” that it is necessary to make sure that truffle poachers don’t find them and spoil all the hard work.

I ask Lisa why she thinks the truffles are so highly prized, costing anything up to US$700 a pound – recently a two-pound white truffle sold for more than $300,000. She laughs and tells me they are delicious, “their earthy, heady aroma and flavour are intoxicating and can almost be described as sexy”. She confides that Les Pastras supply restaurants in New York, California, South Africa, Belgium, Australia and France and refuses to name names but tells me some “are quite famous”.

Cultivating truffles isn’t easy; it’s not just a matter of getting them to actually grow. Their value comes from the fact that they can’t be cultivated with any real certainty. Johann advises, “your property has to have the perfect combination of the right type of soil with the right Ph, proper drainage and sunlight, and a little luck”.

truflle hunting dogsVisitors can take a tour of the beautiful landscape along with Jean-Marc and his two dogs, Mirabelle and Pupuce, a mother and daughter team, whom the truffle hunter has trained since they were puppies. Lisa has learned that “when truffles grow beneath a tree, they compete for resources with any grasses that might be growing in the same area.  The truffle usually wins, which results in a bare patch under the tree. This dead grass, combined with the truffle’s dark exterior and mysterious origins (it comes from a spore and doesn’t have prominent roots) led our ancestors to believe they were the work of dark magic. The bare patch under a truffle oak is still called a ‘witch’s circle’”.

just dug truffles

When I ask Lisa if visitors are always successful she says, “so far, so good! In truth, Jean-Marc stops by the night before a hunt is scheduled to get a couple of truffles for me to make the canapés with and to make sure there’s something out there to find the following day. The dogs sniff them out but we don’t dig them up. Of course, there’s always the chance that the sangliers (wild pigs) could pay us a visit in the night and steal the prize before we have the chance to get there”.

Tours are followed up with a sampling of fresh truffle hors d’oeuvres, Champagne and a tasting of delicious organic Les Pastras olive and truffle oil.

This is one of those really special tours that let you get up close and personal with the glorious Provencal landscape.

If you want to book a tour contact Johann and Lisa via the website below and they’ll send the address details in the southern Luberon, just north of the Durance and 25 minutes from Aix-en-Provence.

Website: Les Pastras

Lisa’s recipe for barley risotto with mushrooms, truffles and truffle oil

More images for Les Pastras Truffle hunting tours in Provence:

Truffle canapés for truffle hunting tour guests:

truffle canapes

Jean-Marc with Mirabelle and Pupuce:

truffle hunt dogs

Lisa of Les Pastras holds a bowl of fresh truffles:

fresh truffles


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