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On the Chocolate Trail

Meryle Evans - January/February 2014

Tain l’Hermitage, France—How do you know when a cocoa pod is ripe? What are the criteria for creating a chocolate flavor profile? Did you know that cocoa is the world’s third largest food commodity, after sugar and coffee?

So many questions to ponder at La Cité du Chocolat, Valrhona’s new multisensory exploration of the world of cacao, bean to bar. Neither Willie Wonka-esque nor a traditional museum, the interactive discovery center, where you can taste, smell, touch, listen, and learn about chocolate, is installed in a striking modern building adjacent to the firm’s factory. Lines were out the door the weekend after La Cité’s opening last October in this historic town along the Rhône river, an hour from Lyon, an area long renowned for its fine Côtes de Rhône wines. Grapes for the prestigious Hermitage Cru have been grown here for over 10 centuries; the chocolate arrived in 1922 when pâtissier Alberic Guironet opened La Chocolaterie du Vivarais.

After World War II, the flourishing company changed its name to Valrhona, targeting pastry professionals with a burgeoning array of products and services. Pâtissier Frédéric Bau established the Valrhona L’École du Grand Chocolat in 1989, now a research and training center for chefs from around the world.

A consumer line, launched in the 1980s, inspired Valrhona marketing director Franck Vidal to create La Cité, where he is now the director. The five million euro ($6,880,700) project stretched seven years from conception to completion, with input from architects, animators, and exhibit designers, as well as Valrhona personnel, from plantation managers in Madagascar to lab researchers and artisan chocolatiers.

La Cité is divided into areas, starting with a sensory immersion: sampling different chocolate flavors, guessing the aromas, and listening to the sound of chocolate crunch. Visitors then follow each step in the process of producing a piece of chocolate. They roam the cocoa belt, identifying the regions that yield the best varieties of beans, knocking on beans to check for the hollow sound that indicates maturity, and listening to local farmers explain, on film, the process of drying and fermentation.

A virtual factory tour follows the beans as they are crushed, roasted, and conched. R&D director Christopher Devaux describes the role of sensory analysts in creating flavor profiles in the “cocoa library”—a laboratory where a panel of trained judges sit in their white lab coats in cubicles, detecting and noting some 30 descriptors, such as sourness, bitterness, astringency, and floral, fruity, spicy, and camphor notes that are blended to create an aromatic taste palette. Young visitors crowd around a marble-topped table to try their skill at re-creating artisanal pastry designs, or admire the sculptured chocolate fantasies from renowned chefs. There are daily demonstrations of pastry art in the spacious amphitheater, and chocolate aficionados can sign up for workshops and tasting sessions. For pastry pros, there is a wide range of courses of varying length in the Grand École, now directed by Philippe Givre, with satellite schools in Paris and Tokyo. The next location? Brooklyn, of course. Fall 2014.

Bau, former head of L’École and creator of the smash-hit blond chocolate Dulcey, remains nearby as creative director, owner,

and dessert-maker at acclaimed Umia, the local Japanese/French restaurant he has opened with his wife, Rika. Other dining options in the area abound, including the new L’Orangerie in Tain l’Hermitage and Anne-Sophie Pic’s Michelin three-star Maison Pic in nearby Valence.