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Valrhona… The Front Line Of Chocolate Innovation

Valrhona… The Front Line Of Chocolate Innovation

Recently, I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to visit the home of Valrhona Chocolate in France and train alongside chef Matthieu Atzenhoffer. In 2019 Chef Matthieu was awarded the prestigious title of ‘Meilleur Ouvrier de France Boulanger 2019’. When someone holds an award of one of the best craftsmen of France, you know you are going to be working at another level alongside an internationally renowned brand.

Valrhona is based in a town called Tain L’Hermitage around an hours drive south of Lyon. We flew on an early morning flight from Manchester, hired a car and took advantage of our day to visit Lyon prior to our drive down the Rhone Valley. Lyon is an incredible city full of rivers, culture, and amazing food! There is a reason it is called the Gastronomic capital of France! Our first port of call was the food market of St Antoine situated on the Rhone. It stretches down the banks and is bustling with local producers selling everything you could possibly imagine including fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, cheese, bread, wine and pastries.

We also discovered a wonderful shop called Les Eclaireurs, a small company who specialise in nothing but the finest Eclairs. We tried their special savoury eclairs too including smoked salmon and cream cheese! Although the French capital of gastronomy may be known for its bouchons serving rich and meaty saucissons and quenelles, Lyon also has its fair share of sweet specialities too! We joined a cue of people waiting to be served outside a chocolatier called Pralus. We soon knew why as we joined the crowd to sample the famous pink pralines. These delicious sweet, sugar-coated, tiny caramelised almonds are a local specialty and this particular shop is famous for their brioche aux pralines, made famous by baker Auguste Pralus in 1955, coining it as the Praluline. It was simply divine!

After a busy day in Lyon we headed out of the city and drove south down the Rhone valley to the stunning town of Tain L’Hermitage on the Rhone river. We had booked into an apartment over looking the square and a stones throw from everything. Arriving into the town it is very obvious that Valrhona is an important part of the culture and the local life here. Chefs feature Valrhona chocolate on almost every dessert menu and patisseries have used it for generations. Valrhona has a deeply embedded rich history here because this is where it all began just over 100 years ago and still operates in the same building Albéric Guironnet opened the original ‘Chocolaterie du Vivarais’ in 1922. There is now a visitor experience, ‘La Cite Du Chocolat’, a visitor shop, two factories and a state of the art school for professionals operated by 30 of the worlds greatest patisseries and chocolatiers.

Arriving into the school on the first day, you know you are entering a world of excellence fuelled by some of greatest chocolate ever created. We were greeted as friends in true french style with offerings of espresso, many handshakes and quite a few kisses. No stone was left unturned as every bit of detail had been covered! Our names were on our lockers, our recipes prepared and our aprons pressed ready for our arrival. 

The chefs who work here are the rock stars of their industry working on the the front line of innovation. They adorn themselves accordingly in pristine, clean cut attire. They match the space! This really is where it begins. Recipes and techniques are developed here in the ‘labs’ as they call them and walking through them it is very clear why this space is so much more than a school. It is a world at the very forefront of chocolate engineering. 

We were part of a group of only 8 people from across Europe to be taken on the three day experience alongside chef Atzenhoffer. Listening to him talk about his recipes and his passion for the ingredients was nothing short of inspiring, as were some of his professional quirks! Occasionally he could’t always give a definitive answer as to why he was adding a little ‘extra’, only that he ‘can just tell the recipe needs it’. That is one of the key things here. Whilst you can work with any recipe in the world, only practice and knowledge will ensure it is perfect every time. Working to this level isn’t something that can be taught overnight. It takes years of work and development.

Throughout the sessions we were taken through of a number of recipes. Carefully working alongside Atzenhoffer we created a variety of recipes worthy of any bakery covering everything from croissants and pain au chocolat through to more complex crémentaise and kugelhupf. We didn’t just create but we ensured that everything was finished to perfection and with the utmost flair. We also covered various ingredients and their applications. No cupboard or fridge was off limits allowing us to taste, use and ask questions about every ingredient Valrhona have at the their disposal. 

Whilst working at Valrhona you have to adjust very quickly to the french way of life. Everything stops for coffee and very regularly too! There isn’t any latte art here either. It is simply espresso and a large shot too! Lunch is a very social occasion and could easily last a couple of hours with wine, bread and three courses, usually washed down by more coffee. On one particular coffee break, we discovered a wonderful box of Valrhona chocolates which mysteriously kept refilling themselves every morning! If only we had one of those at home. We were hosted impeccably by Valrhona who took us to lunch and dinner every day in some of the finest restaurants in the area where ingredients were fresh, locally sourced and the grapes in the wine were grown over the river. What an experience.

On our final day at Valrhona we were treated to a guided visit of their two factories in the town. The original factory is still in the very same building where it all began just over 100 years ago! There is also a slightly larger factory on the outskirts. Both buildings are alive with the smell of chocolate and yet it is an incredibly small operation for such a powerful brand! But that is the key to the success of the chocolate. Quality at every stage of the operation is maintained and checked to ensure the best possible final product is leaving the building for chefs and chocolatiers across the world. 

Visiting Valrhona was nothing short of eye opening at every stage. The business was founded in 1922 by Albéric Guironnet, a pastry maker and confectioner who wanted to stand out from the crowd and decided to roast the cocoa beans himself because of his pure desire for quality. When Guironnet died the business was passed to Albert Gonnet. It wasn’t until 1947 that he would later rename the company Valrhona”, short for Vallée du Rhône” (or Rhone Valley) paying homage to the area. In a world where chocolate prices are rising and customers are forever careful where they spend their money, it is crucial to stand out from the crowd for all of the right reasons. Guironnet knew this on day one and here we are walking in his footsteps a little over hundred years later surrounded by nothing more complicated that passion, quality and craftsmanship.


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