Gillian and the Chocolate Factory… Correspondent Gillian Thornton throws calories to the wind at Valrhona’s discovery centre
France has never been coy about its love affair with the cacao bean. Every town seems to have its own scrumptious speciality, but the absolute last word in French chocolate is Valrhona.
The Chocolaterie du Vivarais opened in 1922 at Tain-l’Hermitage in the Drôme  – a town also famous for its wine – with the Valrhona brand  following in 1947. Today Valrhona is revered by professional chefs and chocoholics across the world. And in 2013, the company opened the Cité du Chocolat, an interactive discovery centre showcasing the history, raw materials and manufacturing process of France’s favourite chocolate, plus, of course, the mouth-watering finished product.
And yes, ‘interactive’ involves plenty of tasting opportunities! A waist-expanding five tonnes are consumed by Cité du Chocolat’s 130,000 visitors every year.
Strategically placed dispensers deliver chocolate lozenges in all colours, and not just the traditional dark, milk, and white. In 2012, Valrhona created chocolate’s fourth dimension with the wonderful Dulcey ‘caramel’ flavour.
There’s no right or wrong way to tour the building, so if, like me, your arrival coincides with one of the 1,000 groups who visit each year, you can easily slip into a quieter zone.
JOURNEY TO THE TROPICS
The Sensory Studio invites visitors to use their five senses as they explore tastes and shapes, colours and textures. Or you can linger in the Recipe Bar to discover classic ingredients and flavours.
I particularly liked the atmospheric Cocoa Farms section, where lovers of the sweet stuff take a virtual journey to the Tropics to find out about cacao tree varieties, farm work and sustainability. Sit on wooden packing cases beneath a canopy of trees whilst lizards, snakes and other jungle creatures walk, crawl and slither across the walls and floor thanks to some ingenious projection.
This is an attraction for all age groups and levels of interest. Lili and Zoco, the Cité du Chocolat mascots, guide younger visitors around, with special experiences and games to play. And children aged seven to 13 can take part in baking workshops to make lollipops and other goodies.
When they need a break, they can read, draw or play on tablets in the Île O Petits kids’ island. The Cité doesn’t forget the grown-ups, either, with the chance to book creative courses and discovery workshops, and learn by osmosis from expert bakers, veteran pastry chefs and consummate chocolatiers.
And when the free lozenges just aren’t enough, the Comptoir Porcelana self-service restaurant offers chocolate cakes and desserts, but also surprising savoury combinations like duck with dark chocolate, and seafood paired with Dulcey.
I would normally groan at being steered through a shop on the way to the exit, but this time I uttered not a peep. The Boutique Valrhona is temptation itself, packed with boxes, bars and bags for all budgets. Lovely to buy as gifts, but oh-so-much nicer to keep for yourself!
For more information, head to www.citeduchocolat.com 
From France Today magazine