Luberon Diary: Honey, where did you hide the truffles?

American Lisa Pepin and her French husband Johann have an 11-hectare organic farm in the Luberon. They each have days jobs, but come the weekend they change into gentleman farmers planting trees, tending to bees and giving truffle tours.


The Pepin FamilyMarch 10, 2013

Today we were out the door at 8am in search of olive trees. A friend who rides her horse along the back trails of this area tipped us off that there might be wild trees growing on a hill overlooking the village. It’s expensive to buy an olive tree from a nursery; we’ve transplanted 320 wild trees onto our property over the years and it hasn’t cost us a thing.

Jackpot! There are indeed trees growing there, but a storm knocked over a huge old oak, which is now blocking the path and making car access impossible. I tried to look inconspicuous to anyone who might have passed by while Johann went back home to collect a wheelbarrow.

It’s not as if we’re stealing. In fact, since the big freeze of 1956 it's legal to transplant olive trees from the wild for cultivation. That being said, we would just like to avoid the conversation that would inevitably occur if someone came across us: “What are you doing? What a good idea, I think I’ll come back with my own shovel.” This is why we head out early, before the French have had their big Sunday lunch and digestive walk.

Olive TreeMarch 18, 2013

There was a fire in the vineyard next to our property today. The pompiers came to investigate but aren’t sure how it started, especially considering that it was raining quite heavily when it happened.

This is the third fire in less than a year. The first two were over the summer, the result of a downed powerline, and each destroyed a part of one of our olive groves. One was planted by Johann’s grandfather in the early 70s and the other was here before the family even bought the house. Our tree expert estimates that they're at least 80-years-old.

Today’s fire died out before it reached our newest grove of olive trees, the oldest of which is just three. This is a lucky break because Johann’s grandfather (who is now 90) gave this house and land to Johann when he turned 18, and he is terribly proud of our new grove along with our clever and ecological way of obtaining the trees. Seeing it burn would have done what the Nazis couldn’t while he was in the French Resistance ...

March 23, 2013

Our shipment of truffle trees came in today. Unlike olive trees, these can’t be transplanted from the wild. Their roots have been given a healthy dose of truffle spores, which makes it much more likely that truffles will grow from them in five to ten years, though it’s not guaranteed. And at €15 for a “tree” that is only about five inches high, it’s an expensive gamble when your goal is to fill several hectares.

Tractor at Les PastrasThe soil has to be just right, both in composition and in pH level. These saplings need to be planted six metres apart and in a south-facing area that gets as much sunshine as possible. In fact, unlike other types of fungi, such as mushrooms, the truffle likes a warm, dry environment, which is why it does well in Provence, particularly at the top of a hill, where rainwater will drain away from them.

Even if you get everything right though, you still may not be lucky enough to find truffles when the tree matures. And then there’s a good chance that a sanglier will find them before you do. But the truffle’s most deadly predator is man. We went in with a friend on this particular bulk shipment, and this is his second of the season. His first planting went into the ground on a Saturday afternoon and by Sunday morning, someone had pulled them out and made off with all 65 trees.

The tree thief either didn’t know that truffle trees cannot be transplanted – once in the ground, they need to stay put if they are going to produce – or maybe he took them out of spite. Either way, our friend is €1000 out of pocket.

March 31, 2013

Today we found a new path to some wild olive trees that is actually wide enough for the car. We got to work digging out the first of the trees when suddenly we heard voices. Thinking it was hikers and wanting to avoid conversation, we decided to lie low until they passed. Out of the woods came three cyclists, quickly followed by a group of five, then still more. They kept on coming until finally we remembered seeing signs advertising a big mountain bike race today. We hid in the bushes for an hour, shaking our heads at the ridiculousness of it all.

April 6, 2013

When our British neighbours bought their house more than ten years ago, they were surprised to find locals from the area at the property on moving day. They weren’t there as a welcoming committee, but to make sure the former owners hadn’t left anything behind. Anything. They took light bulbs, doorknobs, potted plants, the garden hose and even went so far as to dig up some of the rose bushes in the garden.

Now in the market for a smaller house, they recently told us that they would be putting the property up for sale. In respect for tradition, they invited us to come by and dig up all the olive trees before they leave. And since we are big believers in tradition, we agreed.