Visiting Valrhona with The Canny Chocolate Co.

Canny Chocolate – Keylink WP

Visiting Valrhona: The Home of Chocolate Innovation

Our customer, Kevin Reay, founder of The Canny Chocolate Co. in South Shields, has recently expanded into patisserie and was fortunate to attend a three-day course at l’École Valrhona in Tain l’Hermitage. We couldn’t wait to hear all about his time working with some of the most prestigious chocolatiers in France, and Kevin didn’t disappoint! Read on to find out all about his experience visiting Valrhona. 

“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 as 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 hour’s 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 Rhône 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 Rhône. 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 Éclaireurs, a small company who specialise in nothing but the finest éclairs. We tried their special savoury éclairs 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 queue 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 sugar-coated, caramelised almonds are a local speciality, 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 Rhône Valley to the stunning town of Tain-l’Hermitage on the Rhône River. We had booked into an apartment overlooking the square and a stone’s throw from everything. Arriving in 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 where Albéric Guironnet opened the original ‘Chocolaterie du Vivarais’ in 1922. There is now a visitor experience, ‘La Cité du Chocolat’, with a visitor shop, two factories and a state-of-the-art school for professionals operated by 30 of the world’s greatest patisseries and chocolatiers. 

Arriving at the school on the first day, you know you are entering a world of excellence fuelled by some of the 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 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 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 couldn’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 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! 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 of Tain-l’Hermitage. 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 Rhône 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 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 than passion, quality and craftsmanship.” 

It’s clear that Valrhona is proud of its history, as well as being keen to innovate and strive for the highest levels of quality and expertise. What an incredible experience it must have been to spend three full days immersed in the culture, surrounded by chocolatiers at the peak of their game! We’re looking forward to sampling some of Kevin’s new creations next time we’re in South Shields. 

Find The Canny Chocolate Co. on their website, or follow them on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.


If Kevin’s account of his time at l’École Valrhona has got your creative cogs turning, why not take a look at our range of Valrhona products and start planning your next premium chocolate launch?