Les Pastras: Visiting Lisa and Johann Pepin

By Maria Lovchina | Photograph: Elena Demina | 08.08.2019

In the past in Russia, «Provence oil» meant, literally, the top grade of olive oil brought only from France. Today Provence has become more associated with lavender fields, vineyards and picturesque little villages. Olive oil is thought about seldom, although it is still rightly considered the gold of Provence, just as it was many centuries ago. To illustrate this, we went to Les Pastras organic farm near the town of Cadenet in Southern France. We arrived in the midst of an Indian summer. The vineyards were flush scarlet red and harvesting was beginning in the olive groves

Credit: Les Pastras

Just like in «A Year in Provence» by Peter Mayle, our journey started with breakfast next morning – with the wonderful smell of homemade bread and the site of gardens sinking in fruit and sunlight, and of the hills of Cadenet seen through the glass of the La Tuiliere veranda. There used to be a roof tile factory here (“tuile” is tile in French). Now this old rural house is a family hotel, very simple and charming, with splendid views over the surrounding land.

After we had breakfast and walked around the village, we went to Les Pastras for an olive hand-picking workshop. We were each given a basket with a wide belt – these are put on the neck – and we followed Johann into a grove where little trees with silvery leaves stood in their beauty in the midday sun.

Johann told us about the sad day of February 2, 1956. That winter, January was very warm and the trees started to bud inconceivably early. Overnight it turned frosty. The temperature fell to –20 Celsius. Lots of olive trees died. Many farmers became desperate and decided to cut down their olive groves – several years are necessary to grow an olive tree and get a first harvest. They decided to plant vines instead.

France currently produces 5 per cent of its domestic olive consumption. The rest is imported, mainly from Italy and Spain.

In tsarist Russia, Provence oil was highly-valued and considered the best. It was Provence oil that dishes for the monarch’s family were made with. The oil was also used in church ceremonies as holy anointing oil. After the Russian revolution, oil imports from France were stopped. It was only in the 1980s that olive oil in general, and the olive oil of Provence in particular, started to be brought to Russia again.

Today, the olive oil of Provence is produced in a limited amount and is hard to find in the market. Here, in Luberon, it is sold at mills in 25cl bottles or 5 liter cans. They buy a whole year supply at one time, well enough until next harvest. People here make their food only using the freshest oil.

Johann took control of the farm more than ten years ago. Back then, mostly orchards and vast vineyards grew here. Those were difficult to look after using only organic methods. That was why the family began searching for a plant that would be able to grow in natural conditions. They ended up choosing olives.

Olive trees that survived the devastating frost of 1956 can be recognized because their branches grow from stumps – they are like shrubs. These are cultivated trees, the ones that were cut down and abandoned many years ago. Their roots remained unharmed and produced shoots. If you cut off such a branch with a piece of root, it will be possible to grow an olive tree from that. This is a secret Johann learned from his grandfather. That was how they started a new olive grove right in front of their house. They never bought a single one of their 600 olive trees. Once planted, they would first develop and strengthen their root system, and after that grow the above-ground part – the trunk and the branches. Five years later, these little branches produce their first fruit.

Most farmers buy trees from abroad. “Look at this olive tree,” says Johann. “Its fruit are black and elongated in shape. Someone brought me this tree as a gift. It comes from Italy or Spain. If all the trees were like this one, I wouldn’t be able to call my product Olive oil of Provence.

”In a good year one can gather up to 30 kg of olives from a single tree. “This year, the summer has been dry and hot. The trees have dropped many flowers and produced no fruit,” says Johann. Farms with irrigation systems will gather a good harvest this year. Johann, however, wants his household to remain 100 per cent organic, so he has to accept the situation – the harvest is not going to be big.

After the workshop, there was a tasting session. We came back to the orchard and settled down in a cozy patio in the shade of pomegranate trees. A huge tray appeared on the table, with cheese, homemade liver spreads, two sorts of tapenades, sausages and fruit, two little white porcelain bowls with olive and truffle oil, as well as freshly baked bread. All these lovely food was made for us by Johann’s wife.

“Please try the truffle oil. Just a little bit first – it might be too strong because you are not used to it, or you might not like it at all. Dip some bread into it, try it and listen to your sensations. Next, try regular olive oil.”

It is very hard to find genuine truffle oil in the market. Mostly people sell aromatized olive oil. It does not contain any real truffles.

When the sun started to go down, a barely visible new moon appeared. It became completely quiet. While walking away, we saw Johann’s grandparents in the window of the house. They are both 94 years old. Active and lively, they were smiling. The grandmother waved at us. The grandfather was sitting at a table with his stamp album lying open on it.

Probably, here they also have alarm clocks, deadlines, urgent emails, haste and stress. But looking at these people, one feels that they know how to genuinely appreciate time, enjoy life, food, conversation and work that they are truly passionate about.

Credit: Les Pastras


We travelled to Les Pastras in October, 2016. It was one of our first trips and one of the first olive oil farms we’ve ever visited. We might even say that our project started back then.

Since then, a few things have changed at Les Pastras.

They now have 1000 olive trees, and have three different varieties of local olives, which is required to be certified as producer of the olive oil labeled as «Olive Oil of Provence».

They are still 100% organic. But, as the weather is getting less predictable and drier, harder and harder to manage, they have had to add an irrigation system in order to make sure that the new trees survive and that they harvest olives on time. In the good old days you could get a good harvest every two years, now with the changed weather it happens once every 4 years.

The trees had grown a lot since our last visit, too. They are still very young in these photos =)

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