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The Only Food Worth Digging For

Inside the hush-hush business of truffle tourism

Lisa and Johann Pepin’s relationship started with elements of a romantic comedy: A bubbly blonde from suburban Milwaukee meets a charming Frenchman working on his master’s degree in Wisconsin. The pair marry and move to Chicago to start their careers, she in public relations and he in finance. But in an unexpected plot twist, Johann’s grandparents need help with the upkeep of their farm in Provence, and the couple soon find themselves in the French countryside, facing an unkempt property in need of an overwhelming amount of work.

“We were what I call ‘soft-hands and -face workers,’” says Lisa. “We had no idea what we were doing.” But with help and advice from local family and friends, they slowly made progress overhauling the land, their work paying off in fruits and vegetables. One day, a neighbor mentioned that the previous owners of their own home had found truffles on the property. The Pepins soon uncovered truffles on the neighbor’s land and then, interest sufficiently piqued, on other nearby estates as well.

At first, the discovery led to something fun to do on the weekends. “On Saturday mornings, we’d go from house to house, hunting truffles, splitting the bounty with the owner and enjoying a cocktail before moving on to the next property,” Lisa recalls. Soon, though, they realized they had a unique experience to offer visitors from overseas. They’ve since gone from novice farmers to a sought-after truffle-hunting idyll, with adventurous gourmands from around the world making the trip to the Pepins’ tiny corner of Provence to spend their mornings digging for truffles and their afternoons enjoying the fruits of their labor.

All guests at the property—named Les Pastras, a Provençal term for “the pastures”—receive a warm welcome from Johann and his two truffle-hunting dogs, Éclair and Mirabelle. Then it’s down the hill and toward a forest of oak trees, where the pups sniff out the morsels and dig shallow holes, from which foragers can easily pull the truffles. Once the bounty is collected, the hunting crew takes a break back at the house, where Lisa pours generous glasses of champagne to serve alongside truffle-dusted cheese. Guests are sent home with bottles of truffle oil and locally produced wine; some opt to adopt their own truffle oak tree on the property, which comes with 100 grams of black Périgord truffles.

Photo: Getty Images

The Pepins also ship their truffles worldwide, and some visitors to the estate have started a “truffle-share” back home, ordering the product in bulk to repurpose locally and spawning an inadvertent truffle-hunting obsession. TV producer Jeanne DeBell Polocheck fell in love with the Pepins’ estate and their story a few years back while filming a truffle hunt at Les Pastras. She was inspired to create a truffle-lovers club in her native Houston, flying in shipments from Les Pastras for exclusive truffle dinners in the city’s finest homes. The popularity of the Les Pastras truffles—her club has nearly 400 members, she says—inspired Polocheck to expand the business, which now includes guided trips to Provence.

Vancouver food educator Kendall Gustavson similarly launched a supper club after visiting the Pepins, hosting intimate truffle-themed brunches in her hometown and organizing truffle-hunting tours to Les Pastras. “Having the truffle club is a way to connect with Provence when I can’t be there,” says Gustavson. The Pepins, meanwhile, are happy to have helped fuel the frenzy, even as the truffle business is so notoriously “shady and secretive” that the Pepins will sell truffles anywhere in the world—except France. “We prefer that locals remain unaware of the fact that we have truffles on the property,” she says, comparing it to an open-air jewelry store.

For that reason, it’s also difficult to know exactly how many ventures like the Pepins’ exist, though tours like those at Truffle Farm in Canberra, Australia, and Tuscany’s 800-year-old estate Castiglion del Bosco do brisk business year-round. Meanwhile, the demand for truffles certainly isn’t waning: One of NYC’s top truffle dealers, Francesca Sparvoli, reportedly brings in up to $25,000 a day selling Périgords to the city’s leading restaurants. As far as dirty little secrets go, this one’s having a brilliant moment in the sun.