Our family arrived in Lyon just over a week ago, so with another ten days before school begins, I decided we'd make a day trip to Valrhona's Cité du Chocolat--an educational experience (much like a hands-on museum) focused on chocolate. Located in Tain l'Hermitage roughly 50 minutes south of Lyon by train, Cite du Chocolat opened just five years ago (in 2013). Having had a delectable first visit in 2015, I was excited on this visit to see what was new (and to taste the high quality samples)!
It's fantastic to be able to walk directly to Cité du Chocolat from Tain's train station, and it's an easy 8-minute walk even with a toddler or stroller. Admission is slightly cheaper before noon, so we bought our tickets just before lunch and returned to Cité after a lunchtime picnic at a kid-friendly park just behind the building. There's also a chocolate café on the first floor with healthy and decadent choices.
The Cité du Chocolat experience begins with a taste comparison: your admission ticket (and even the free tickets for children under 5) can be scanned for chocolate samples, and a interactive video (French or English, adult or child versions) explains what differentiates the samples. The samples are high quality, and I love how the brief presentations helped my children to understand what differentiates not just milk chocolate and dark chocolate, but also to understand the taste differences within the same kinds of chocolate.
The next room is very sensory, with canisters for visitors to smell as they identify various spices and ingredients that are frequently paired with chocolate. I like the tasting samples of Xocopili balls spiced with cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, and star anise, or Xocomeli balls with paprika, curry, cardamom, and espelette pepper. I love making homemade chai tea, so these chocolates are among my favorite Valrhona samples.
A large room in the back focuses on global sources for chocolate and ethical harvesting practices. I especially appreciate the maps explaining that the majority of the world's chocolate comes from West Africa and the equatorial belt, and yet the world's consumers are essentially all based in the Northern Hemisphere, especially Europe and North America. If I translated the French correctly, Valrhona claims that chocolate is the world's third most traded basic global food product after sugar and coffee.
Though Cité du Chocolat is located at one of Valrhona's industrial sites, the manufacturing process is only seen through video footage. Nonetheless, it's astonishing to hear about the items that must be sorted out from the harvests of cacao beans (mostly cacao pod fragments but sometimes they find machetes and flip flops!). The chocolate-making process is a lengthy art and science, requiring fermentation, crushing, heating, mixing, and cooling. You can taste the bitterness of chocolate before it's sweetened, but they place a trash can at the sample area, and it's frequently used!
New at Cité du Chocolat is public access to the second level (1er ètage), which focuses on the patisserie aspect of chocolate. Children can use electronic tablets to simulating writing in chocolate (harder than it sounds) or to sculpt new creations. There's a baking area showing how pâtisseries like pannetone rise in the oven; nearby, videos interview chefs about their favorite kitchen tools, desserts, and smells. In addition there are additional samples of specialty chocolates with unique bases like banana cream or a butterfinger-like toffee crunch. There's even a new play room with puzzles, dress-up clothes, and building blocks for children to end their visit with more tactile play.
Ultimately, though, a visit to Cité du Chocolat must end in the boutique, where additional samples ensure that you cannot leave without your complete fill of chocolate. My favorite purchases from Valrhona are cacao powder (also recommended by pastry chef and blogger David Lebovitz) and tablets of Dulcey blond (a carmelized white chocolate invented by a Valrhona chef in 2007) for American friends to try. The sweetest part of the boutique are the additional chocolate bars and freebies they add to your bag, because everyone can use some extra kindness in their life (even if they've had their fill of chocolate!).