Luberon Diary: Pickers find peace at Les Pastras

Extending the olive branch

November 1, 2013

As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” For us, that “thing” was getting people to pay us to pick our olives. They said it couldn’t be done. They unkindly said, “What you’re doing is a scam.” But “they” were Provence natives who had never worked in a drab, featureless building or gone months without seeing a bird that wasn’t a pigeon. They didn’t ride a loud, cold train to work with the other corporate drones, who wished they were anywhere else but there.

If you had stopped by the Chicago office on the 50th floor where I worked ten years ago, and told me that for just €50 I could spend the day picking olives on an organic farm in Provence, plus enjoy a traditional French countryside lunch of beef daube, saffron potatoes au gratin, ratatouille, cheese and dessert plus all the wine I cared to drink … well, I would have signed up twice. And probably kissed you, to boot.

Les Pastras, Picking OlivesPhoto: Walter Pfeiffer

And as it turned out, the opportunity was indeed attractive to other city dwellers. A businessman from Ireland, a lawyer from LA and even a recent graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in California – all among the folks who willingly paid to pick olives and have lunch with us. We picked 75 kilos of olives that day. And, as is often the case with our tours, people who came to us as paying clients left as friends. For that alone, we consider the endeavour a success.

November 15, 2013

Olive PickerPeople often ask how we got started hunting truffles. It began with our British neighbours, who heard that the former owners of their house used to find truffles on the property. They asked my husband, Johann, if he knew of any truffle hunters who could come to the house to see if the story was true. And as it happened, one of his childhood friends, Jean-Marc, is a third-generation truffle hunter with two trained dogs.

Johann, Jean-Marc and his dogs paid them a visit and found some rather large truffles on their property. Word quickly spread (as it does in Provence!) and the services of two men and two dogs were soon in demand throughout the neighbourhood. They developed a system whereby the hunters would visit the properties every weekend, splitting the spoils 50-50 with the landowners and cleverly managing to always end the day’s work at the home of the neighbour known for pouring the most generously-sized pastis at apéro time.

One day, Jean-Marc mentioned to Johann that he had noticed some older oaks on our land that just might have truffles. They came back from that first foray onto our property with a truffle twice the size of a golf ball. I actually jumped for joy when I saw it.

Since the very specific conditions necessary to grow truffles already existed, naturally the next step was to maximise on our good fortune by planting more trees. In the meantime, though, the existing trees produced a weekly supply that was too small to earn enough by selling to a restaurant. What could we do with such a meagre amount? As more and more of our friends asked if they could tag along on our weekend hunts, the answer became obvious. And so, armed with a very basic website, we officially launched Les Pastras truffle hunting tours to the public in December 2012.

Olive TruckNovember 24, 2013

With so much land perfect for truffles in our neighbourhood, you might think it strange that we are the only hunters. And you’d be right. Our uphill neighbour has a truffle dog but very respectfully hunts only on his own property. Wanting to keep it that way, Johann tries to be subtle about our tours and has only told this neighbour that we conduct “farm tours.” As agritourism is arguably one of the fastest-growing segments of the industry, our lovely specimen of a Provençal farm makes it plausible.

The only problem is our guests. Nobody would ever believe that the fashionable folk who turn up with their fur coats, Mulberry bags, Prada loafers, and Frye boots are here because they have a burning desire to learn about farming. (We didn’t even know they made Hunter boots with a wedge heel!)

Today, as Johann led a group on a tour and saw the uphill neighbour’s car approaching in the distance, he took one look at the chic entourage behind him and said, “You guys need to hide.” The group of four obediently ducked behind the nearest row of trees until the car passed and then laughed like crazy when told the reason why.

DaubeAfter a day of picking olives guests enjoyed a
delicious traditional French beef daube.
Photo: Walter Pfeiffer
December 6, 2013

This was a big day for us. Les Pastras was mentioned in an article about epicurean experiences that make great holiday gifts in USA Today, a nationwide newspaper with six million readers. We’re not even sure how they heard of us, but feel that this bodes well for the future.

December 20, 2013

As the year draws to a close, and we reflect on 2013, our most important accomplishment was contributing to the One Family Orphanage in Dargout, Haiti. This has been the first full year of donating 50% of the profits from our olive and truffle oil, and thanks to the clients who purchased these products, we were able to send Christmas gifts for 75 children, ship 140 kilos of donated books (which they used to create a library), a brand new laptop and funds to assist the purchase of playground equipment. It’s a start and we look forward to seeing what 2014 will bring.