Bonjour les amis! We've just returned from an extended weekend spent visiting dear friends in la Drôme, a region in southeast France. Our friends took us to La Cité du Chocolat in Tain-l'Hermitage (near Valence) and even though none of us were true chocoholics beforehand, we left this place feeling like chocolate connoisseurs--and gourmands who enjoyed far too many of the abundant samples! Here's why it's such a deliciously informative place to visit, and why we'd enjoy visiting it again anytime:
La Cité du Chocolat is essentially a hands-on chocolate education center created by quality French chocolate maker Valrhona. It's on the site of Valrhona's renowned chocolate school and factory. Years of planning went into its design before it opened in late 2013, and it's clear that they invested a lot of resources to make it an interactive family experience that appeals to all five senses.
In the initial tasting area, you can slide your admission ticket into a kiosk to receive two squares of milk chocolate or dark chocolate. (Though it's high quality, the chocolate isn't for people with dairy, soy, gluten, or nut sensitivities.) Guided video clips with English subtitles help visitors detect the notes and flavors that differentiate the chocolate. Children ages 5-12 can complete an activity guide as they explore, keeping an eye out for the child-oriented exhibits that feature Lily and Zoco (the Cité's mascots).
The recipe area features samples of the four basic types of chocolate: dark, milk, white, and blond. Blond chocolate was invented by a Valrhona patissier who left some white chocolate in a bain-marie for ten hours and couldn't get over its buttery flavor. (You can read more about the invention of blond chocolate here.) I was intrigued to see the composition of each type of chocolate broken down into visual amounts of sugar, cocoa butter, and other ingredients. A nearby counter offers whiffs of the ingredients commonly added to chocolate, and a lovely display notes the global origins of these additives. Here you can also sample complex chocolates made with ingredients such as liquor, cinnamon, cardamom, or chilis, or identify your ideal chocolate composition by answering a questionnaire on a touch screen.
Once you've sampled chocolate to your hearts content, the cacao plantation area offers a respite from tastings as you read and listen to information about cacao trees, pods, cocoa beans, nibs, and harvesting methods. An interactive map shows children the global locations of cocoa farms.
In the atelier, we listened to a live presentation about how the beans are harvested, and I was impressed to have the opportunity to handle a freshly cut cabosse and smell the earthy damp beans inside. Such presentations are given regularly in French each day--check at the front desk to see which workshops or presentations are scheduled. Mini-ateliers are sometimes available for children.
Finally, the chocolaterie explains step-by-step how cacao beans are processed into liquid and bars for consumption. Watching webcams focused on the chocolate factory employees next door reminded me of the infamous I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy finds herself stuffing chocolates in her mouth and pockets when she falls behind on her packaging duties!
Before you leave, check out the exposition hall of recent chocolate creations while your children design chocolate masterpieces of their own on interactive screens.
A trip to the Valrhona boutique across the hall isn't required, but I highly recommend it. Dozens more samples await you there (including creamy hot chocolate and crunchy pralinés) and it's a great place to buy delectable souvenirs. Paris-based American pastry chef David Lebovitz recommends buying some Valrhona cocoa powder for friends--it's high quality and keeps well.
All of us adults left with indulgent amounts of chocolate in our stomachs, and our hands were carrying gift bags loaded with free chocolate from the cashiers. La Cité du Chocolat truly is a feast for the mind and senses!
What's your favorite kind of chocolate? What delectable memories do you associate with chocolate?