Franco-American couple Johann and Lisa Pepin left behind their high-flying jobs in Chicago to take over Johann’s family farm, Les Pastras, in rural Vaucluse where they run Provençal activity tours including truffle hunting and grape harvests
What were you doing before you moved to Vaucluse?
Before moving to France in 2003, our lives were very different. We lived in Chicago, where Johann worked in hedge funds and I worked in marketing/public relations. Our time spent ‘out in nature’ consisted of waiting on the platform for the train, sometimes in sub-zero temperatures.
Why did you decide to take on the farm?
Johann was raised on the Les Pastras farm by his grandparents, so when they told him that the property’s caretaker was retiring and the ageing couple would be left alone to manage the land, he suggested a change. We made the decision almost on a whim. Taking care of the family legacy was the obviously the right thing to do, and we thought that if living in the countryside didn’t suit us, we could always just move back to the States and send funds back to France for a new caretaker. No big deal.
Tell us about the farm.
Like most big farmhouses in the countryside, Les Pastras was split into two residences. It was already assumed that multiple generations of the family would live there and work the land together. So the housing situation was ideal. In the countryside between Cadenet and Lourmarin, Les Pastras sits on a hill with 11 hectares that are rich with grapes, olives, peaches, plums, apricots, pomegranates, cherries, almonds, and hazelnuts. It was a little piece of paradise.
How did you adapt to the change in lifestyle?
Johann found a job in finance in Aix-en-Provence and I started doing some freelance translating. We easily made the transition to being ‘gentleman farmers’, doing our best on the weekends with our limited knowledge to keep up with what was really a lot of land for two people with no experience. It was easy to get used to the lifestyle change, honestly. We gave up our big Chicago pay cheques, the ability to have absolutely anything delivered to the apartment, and our band of fellow 20-somethings who were always up for a night of fun at the bar on Saturdays. But we traded city lights for starry nights, pigeons for soaring hawks, Whole Foods for local farmers’ markets, traffic noise for the chirping of cigales, steaks at the famous Chop House for lunches at the Michelin-starred La Petite Maison.
How did the truffle-hunting tours come about?
Everything changed for us the day our British neighbours asked us if we knew anyone who could verify the rumour that the former owners of their home used to find truffles there. Johann contacted his childhood friend, Jean-Marc, who has two skilled truffle-hunting dogs. They found truffles right away, so Jean-Marc suggested offering their hunting services to the other neighbours. Soon, the team made the rounds of the neighbourhood every weekend, searching for truffles and then splitting the treasure with the landowners, over an apéritif, of course. Soon, when asked how our weekend was, enough people showed an interest in the hunt and said that they’d pay to experience it that we thought we’d try offering it as a tour of the property; a truffle hunt followed by a tasting that included our cousins’ excellent champagne. Lespastras.com went online in December of 2012, and though we got off to a slow start, the business quickly picked up momentum.
Tell us about the other tours that you offer.
After a while, enough people expressed their enthusiasm for the property and its bounty that we began offering grape stomps and olive harvest activities as well. The vineyard had always sold its grapes to the local co-op and its fruit to organic distributors, but this was the first time the farm itself became an attraction and welcomed tourists. Johann’s grandparents still can’t believe that people come from around the world to Les Pastras to pick grapes, stomp them while dancing to Édith Piaf in giant barrels, and learn French drinking songs. But at age 94, they love the opportunity to see people journey back in time to delight in things that were everyday activities in their youth.
What else can your guests discover?
There’s a real market for authenticity in Provence, and tourists these days like to have an experience that’s off the beaten path. We also take guests on mushroom-hunting and fishing excursions and we even offer pétanque lessons, complete with a tournament and apéritif at the end. With both winter and summer truffles, grape stomps, mushroom hunts, fishing, and olive harvests, we have activities to offer during every season of the year! We like to think that our guests go home with more than photos of monuments and scenery, but with memories of good times and new friends.
Moving from America to the Loire Valley _____________________________________________________
Where is your favourite market in Vaucluse?
Lourmarin is a fabulous market, perhaps the best in Provence, but as locals, we find it too crowded in the summertime. Cucuron is smaller, but has even more charm.
Can you recommend a good restaurant?
Do you have any other recommendations?
Don’t miss the chance to taste the incredible (and all natural!) ice cream at Scaramouche in Céreste. The lovely couple who own it make the truffle ice cream we serve during our tours! The spa at the five-star property La Coquillade in Gargas is absolutely breathtaking, as is their bistro out in the middle of a lavender field. Les Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux-de-Provence is the one touristy thing we make sure to do every year. It’s a mélange of art and music against a dramatic backdrop that you’ll never forget. Château La Coste offers a magical blend of high-end villas, casual dining, excellent wine, and an incredible art walk that will have you strolling through vineyards next to works by Alexander Calder, Tracey Emin, Michael Stipe, and Louise Bougeois, just to name a few.
This interview is from the September issue of Living France which you can buy here
Take a look at what’s inside the September issue here