When I heard that Valrhona, the famed producer of premium chocolates for pastry chefs, chocolatiers and artisan craftsman, was chosen the European Candy Kettle Club’s 2015 Award recipient, I was thrilled to mark down the date in my calendar.
Now, having just returned from Tain l’Hermitage and Valence, France last Sunday, the memories are still vivid, beginning with the plant tour and visit to La Cite du Chocolat and continuing with my interview with Managing Director Jean-Luc Grisot. That was followed by a wine and chocolate pairing and the week-long celebrations concluded with the award ceremony and gala dinner. Oh, did I forget a tour of the Cote du Rhone wineries and a fabulous lunch at Restaurant Umia, headed up by Frederic Bau, the company’s executive pastry chef?
But you’ll get to read about all that in the January issue, when Valrhona and Grisot will be featured on the cover. In the interim, I thought I’d share some of my experiences from visiting the company’s permanent interactive exhibit involving chocolate, La Cite du Chocolate, which translates to “city of chocolate.”
So picture this. Upon being given my entry ticket to the exhibit area, I am told to hold onto it since it’s my key to enjoying chocolate. You see, there are four tasting kiosks that provide you with chocolate tablets upon reading the UPC code on the entry ticket.
Once the reader scans your ticket, it releases two square tablets. At this point you’re ready for your tasting lesson. A video featuring one of the key managers in research & development explains to you in French (English subtitles) how to properly taste chocolate.
The step-by-step process involves looking, smelling, breaking, tasting and tasting again the chocolate piece. You’re also asked to describe what you taste and compare it to the sensory panel’s observations. And like wine, where individual preferences and tastes preclude wrong or right answers, chocolate provides a complex sensory experience.
But the kiosk allows you to compare your tasting notes with the panel’s just to see how your taste profile jives with theirs. It really is a pretty cool way of using technology to interact with experienced sensory specialists.
There were lots of other cool things, such as the texture game, whereby you place your hand into cubby holes to determine your tactile skills. There are also listening kiosks where you try to recognize texture from a certain sound.
There’s a pod chest containing fresh cocoa pods, films introducing you to real cocoa farmers, a touch-screen map allowing you to visit cocoa-growing areas, a chocolate factory room that pinpoints key processing steps by people working in the plant on videos, even webcams showing actual production in the company’s adjoining production facility where they focus on enrobing and decorating pralines. There’s even an electronic marble slab that allows you to mimic tempering and decorative writing.
It was just a fun way to discover chocolate, even for this curmudgeon of an editor.
So how did this concept come about? Well, the process goes back to 2006, when the company decided to expose consumers to what makes chocolate so fascinating through a permanent exhibit. Prior to that, the company had staged travelling exhibits, which garnered immediate public interest. In fact, more than half a million chocolate lovers viewed the exhibit in Paris, Marseille, Bordeaux and Strasbourg.
The idea was to create an exhibit based on interactivity between the visitors and their five senses, illustrating what we in the industry already know — chocolate’s a never-ending delectable discovery.
To link the past with the present, the company decided to purchase the buildings adjoining its first factory in the center of the city. Within a year, Valrhona had acquired and razed the adjoining buildings and slowly started to create its tribute to “taste, the craft and the chocolate.”
After eight years — and yes, it took that long to get it right — the 2,000-sq.-meter shrine to chocolate opened in 2013, demonstrating that knowledge can be transferred in a kinetic manner. Apparently, more than 100,000 visitors have confirmed that. Moreover, the company is planning a second floor addition, the emphasis being on having visitors do more “hands-on” experiences.
When asked why a company like Valrhona felt it so important to invest in such an wonderful yet costly exercise in continuing cocoa and chocolate education, Grisot simply stated, “We wanted to do our part.” And they did, and did it well.