Situated slightly north of the southern french city of Valence, in the department of the Drome is the commune of Tain l’Hermitage. This small township is home to one of this country’s most revered food products – the factory for Valrhona chocolate. Known worldwide for it’s exquisite chocolate, adored by chocolatiers, patissiers, chefs and home bakers alike for its specialist chocolate couverture, Valrhona chocolate is hailed as majestic to those who enjoy the finest, most regal of all ‘black golds’. Whilst the huge factory itself sits in the industrial estate, central to the township is the newly minted Cité du Chocolat, Valrhona’s presentation piece to welcome the public, with a beautiful exhibition space to explore the scent, taste, history and production process of it’s chocolate. It also encompasses kitchen workshop spaces for demonstrations, a cafe for enjoying both sweet and savoury dishes utilising chocolate and of course, there is the irresistible and positively enormous gift shop where you can find the chocolate most suited to your own tastes. I had the pleasure of visiting recently with my children and it was rather satiating at the end of our visit, to teeter up to the counter with a ballast of chocolate in my hands.
I have to confess that ordinarily I am not a fan of chocolate. Now before you launch that coffee cup at me, please hear me out! I generally find chocolate too rich; wherever you are, I am sure you can hear my husband’s guffaw that the greatest sweet tooth ever could make such a claim! There have been times where I have felt the intensity of chocolate to be rather suffocating to the palate (but I suppose there could be worse ways to pass away!). Valrhona however, manages to coerce me over to the ‘dark side’ and let me rephrase to say that I am not a fan of any chocolate other than Valrhona. From darkest, to their creamiest milk chocolate, Valrhona is superb. With a swathe of samples inside the complex, I was happy to re-evaluate my perception of chocolate whilst browsing and tasting their phenomenal array of varieties.
My children had fun using touch screens to attempt virtual writing with chocolate and to watch the preparation of pains au chocolat using time lapse filming.
There are animations, a colossal amount of information about the cocoa bean is disseminated and the most spectacular pieces of chocolate art are displayed about the building. Yes of course (I feel you tugging at my sleeve to ask) there are samples to taste throughout the exhibition, the classics and also some surprising flavour pairings. The tasting point within Valrhona’s gift store provids a very comprehensive breakdown of the virtues of the staggering number of different varieties of chocolat noir, au lait, blanc plus couverture which contains a higher percentage of cocoa butter.
For my husband, the blackest of deep, smouldering dark chocolate is considered heaven on earth. He does not like sugar particularly and I find this tragic! However, he adores one, or possibly two squares of good quality chocolat noir with a cup of (unsweetened) coffee. For him, Valrhona manufactures a beautiful quality product and an an excellent array of noirs. Absent from our visit, we went about finding the variety that would appreciate the most. Our heads were turned by a scattering of choices, and Abinao, Manjari and Guanaja were noirs I had already purchased for him.
For myself, now I duck as you pick up that coffee cup again, my preference has always been white chocolate. After tasting Valrhona’s Dulcey, a blond a couple of years back, it has become the only one that I will eat, it is exquisite. I have gone to lengths to get it at times, but it is worth a drive, or a wait by post and certainly every cent.
Before the connaisseurs howl at me that blanc or blonds are not chocolate, I will have you know that Valrhona take these very seriously! This producer, the king of quality chocolate in France, required 8 years of research to produce their biscuity flavoured and adorably named Dulcey. It is not cloyingly sweet but just perfect, with a toasty caramelised taste and colour, so smooth with it’s property of being choc(k) full (excuse the pun) of glorious cocoa butter.I challenge anyone to taste it and not fall smack bang, head over heels in love with Dulcey! Certainly my own Coups de Coeur!* For all those intensely chocolate educated, tasters who wish to hoot smugly at me, well please just go and take it up with Valrhona themselves (and give me the chance to scuttle away to safety behind my gigantic sack of Dulcey feves de chocolat from the gift store!). How can it be that I prefer a blonde over a brunette? What is all this chocolate bigotry? Shush for heaven’s sake, can’t we all learn to appreciate our chocolate diversity, to see we are all derived from and united by a bean, and just learn to live in harmony?
With the enormous sack of Dulcey safely in my hands and with my son and daughter to assist, we managed to choose Araguani 72% noir in baking pastilles for my husband in Valrhona’s gift shop, made from rare cocoa beans from Venezuela. Having recently made madeleines with rose water for my daughter, I thought of making a rather less floral version of madeleines for my husband and son, using lemon zest and one side of the cake dipped in Araguani noir. It was one of the simplest of ways to enjoy using Valrhona’s baking chocolate and both the taste and shine were really satisfying.Following the high standard of their chocolate, Valrhona has created a very elegant and educative space in the Cité du Chocolat Valrhona. I simply ask people to think very carefully before visiting the Cité du chocolat, for once you have done so, you may never be able to eat, nor be satisfied to bake with any other chocolate again!
Cité du chocolat Valrhona, 12 avenue du Président Roosevelt, 26660 Tain l’Hermitage +33 (0)4 75 09 27 27
*Coup de coeur is the expression used to indicate one’s very favourite, and how could Valrhona be anything but?