You cannot get much more hardscrabble than the limestone hills and ridges of the Luberon. The 'perched villages' are an elegant solution to the problems of security in an insecure and changing world. On their craggy hilltop towns, crowned by castles and forts, the villagers could retreat in times of trouble, leaving farms and fields until the tumult passed.
Each of these 'perched villages' has its own characteristic slumbering nature. A slumber only broken by their weekly markets (and by the seasonal high season influx of tourists). Proud and picturesque Gordes, bombed to rubble in WWII and now the postcard perfect retreat for artists and designers. Stony Bonnieux, crowned by it's church, gazes across the valley to neigbouring Lacoste, where the Marquis de Sade's fortress glares back. Red Roussillon, a silica island in a limestone sea, rising above its ochre quarries, which have nearly consumed the village.
And Cadenet, south of the Luberon Massif, where we have come to Johan and Lisa Pepin's farm at Les Pastras to learn about the mystery of the truffle. And to hunt for some. And Johan and his team are able to add context, humour and convivial fun to the experience. The visit begins with a stroll around Johan's property in the hills above Cadenet. Whist we walk, Johan tells us the history of the truffle, where they grow, and how they can be found and even cultivated. During this perambulatory discussion, we are joined by Johan's partner, the truffle hunter, and his truffle hunting dogs Eclair and Mirabelle. And so the hunt began. Of course, because it is summer time, we were hunting the summer truffle, a less intensely flavoured and desirable variety. Nevertheless, five truffles were duly unearthed as the dogs demonstrated their skill, and division of labour. Mirabelle sniffs out the quarry, whilst the larger Eclair digs to find it. The truffle hunter's task is to keep the dogs minds on the job, to prevent damage to the quarry, and to administer treats to the workers each time they locate a truffle.
After the hunt, and a tour of the other diversified functions of the farm (olives for oil, grapes for stomping, honey from bees) our group of seven retired to Johann's comfortable outdoor kitchen to partake of the bounty (well, actually bounty prepared earlier). The rules of eating truffles are explained (fat plus salt plus truffle), and we got to try plenty of truffles, plus champagne. The highlight. Definitely the truffle ice cream teamed with truffle honey.
One can purchase produce from the farm, but there is no hard sell. There is only one rule. Customers cannot leave until they have eaten all their truffles!