Aside from the massive safe in the Banque de France, probably the toughest place to get in to in France is the Ecole de Grand Chocolat Valrhona in the little town of Tain l’Hermitage. Admission to the professional cooking program I attended is by invitation only, and several times of the year, pastry chefs and chocolatiers from all over the world come to Valrhona to watch and learn how their chocolate is made. And even more important, to discover the best and tastiest ways to eat it.
Our chef-instructor was Philippe Givre, who was good-natured, but never let us forget that we were there to work-work-work. And he was perhaps the best example of the hard-driving pastry chef.
Each morning when we arrived bleary-eyed (which had nothing to do with the Côte du Rhone-fueled dinners…), by the looks of things when we stepped in the spotless kitchen, it was obvious that he’d been there for hours, setting up the chocolate enrobers and lining up molds for our soon-to-be dipped chocolates.
Getting right to the chocolates, one of my favorites was what Chef Givre called “les Snickers bars” because of their layer of peanut croquante, a mix of peanuts and hazelnuts cooked in roasted sugar with a thin layer of gooey salted butter caramel on the bottom of these dark chocolate slathered bars. I think that if real Snickers bars tasted as good as these, they’d be selling a lot more Snickers bars.
And in case anyone thinks that French cuisine is fading into irrelevancy, Chef Givre proved that sometimes you just can’t beat solid technique, combined with amazing ingredients. When the French hit it right, they really do get it right on target.
I can’t possibly condense all I learned into one story here, but the base of most everything we made was ganache, that satin-smooth blend of chocolate mixed with cream and butter. But lest you think it’s just mindlessly combining those things in a bowl, heating them up, and pouring it out, we spend hours and hours whipping, beating, and pouring getting it to just the right temperature before pouring it out into blocks.
I’ve been making ganache for thirty-five years, and had never seen such meticulous care taken each step of the way, always involving a high-tech thermometer. And for those doubters out there, we tasted both poorly-made ganache next to the velvety-smooth ones, and there was just no contest.
Being attached to a chocolate factory, we got to use all three types of chocolate; dark, milk, and white, and each had its own peculiarities. One morning was spent in the factory, watching the machines at work and the workers quietly placing chocolates on the belt before they emerged from the other side of the cascade of chocolate, perfect and shiny, ready for packing. Or eating, which we did.
Valrhona also makes what they call “cru” chocolates, and during the few moments when we weren’t hauling ass around the kitchen, I’d reach into the bags lined up in the laboratory for a taste. “Cru” refers to the terroir or region where the cacao is grown and produced, and as we found out, through multiple sampling (me sampling more than others…hey, there was no sign not to…), it can have a huge effect on the finished chocolate.
My favorite was the Nyangbo, which used only beans from Africa, which typically aren’t the best-quality beans. But this chocolate from Ghana blew me away and was my favorite of them all. Fruity and intense, it just might become my new go-to chocolate. We also got a sneak preview of their new Essense of Guinaja 80%, developed for professionals who are looking for more intensity in their chocolate desserts and confections. Biting into one of the truffles we made with them was an overwhelming chocolate overload. Well, almost.
For those of you who tsk-tsk white chocolate, think again, suckas…
What you’re looking at is a tray of caramelized white chocolate. That’s right: Caramel and cocoa butter, madames et monsieurs. Called the “Toffee of Milk”, when we pulled this tray out of the oven, spoons were flying as all the chefs were licking their lips in satisfaction, just going to show that you can teach some old dogs—some older than others—new tricks.
My other favorite chocolate we made was Iceberg, a swirl of white and dark chocolates flavored with mint. (I’m sure I was a Girl Scout in my past life with a merit badge in craving chocolate mint cookies.)
Like most of the other chocolates we produced, these were cut into little bars and sent through a shower of dark chocolate in the enrober. We were, literally, kids in a candy store, playing with all sorts of equipment, piping truffles, dipping centers, and candying everything we could get our hands on.
Of course, we had the best of ingredients. And in chocolate-making, nowhere does it matter more. You can’t make great chocolates without great chocolate, or hazelnuts like these toasty beauties from Northern Italy.
As mentioned, everyone there was highly-skilled pastry professional. But many of us were débutants compared to the chefs of Valrhona.
Seemingly simple tasks like making a chablon, a tissue-thin square of tempered chocolate to use to seal in the firm ganache, proved a challenge to most of us, and with the chefs breathing down our necks, it was even more of a challenge. But with more patience than Job, most of us got it. (It took me four times, but I think I need to make a few hundred more before I feel completely comfortable doing them. Send more chocolate!)
Some of the chocolates, thankfully, instead of a chablon, had a base of pâte de fruit, or gelled fruit, which made things not only easier, but in each case, made things more delicious.
The last day of classes, we scrambled to finish and polish up everything we’d made.
And it was a lot. Not everything was perfect…
…but as I always say, “If you could already do something well, you wouldn’t need to take classes to learn it.”
There’s always more to learn, and mistakes taste just almost as good as perfection, in the case of chocolates. A theory I can now attest to with one-hundred-percent certainty.
By the end of the class on the last night, we were all given a big box and told to fill ’em up and bring ’em home. All week, I’d been a bit intimidated by some of the sheer talent around me. Working alongside the top pastry chefs in the world, and chocolatiers with very successful businesses, was quite an experience. Although not for the easily intimidated. These folks were hard-core professionals who knew their stuff.
But no one could top David Lebovitz in the chocolate-packing department. Having taken a class in boxing up bonbons, and working in two chocolate boutiques, (in Brussels and at a boutique in Paris) everyone was stunned at how efficient I was at packing as many chocolates as I could in mine.
I didn’t weigh them, but surely mine was the heaviest of them all.
For those with a good working knowledge of chocolate-work, Ecole Chocolat offers a version of this class as an annual French Chocolate Workshop at Valrhona. In order to attend, you must either be a graduate of their program or prove a familiarity with chocolate-making on a professional level.
Valrhona hosts individual classes (in French) that are open to the public and you can visit the site of L’école de Grand Chocolat Valrhona to inquire about availability.
UPDATE: Valrhona has opened a school near Paris, in Versailles, which offers half- and full-day classes (in French) to the public. You can inquire about them by calling 04 75 07 90 95, or by e-mail.
Chocosphere: Offers the entire line of Valrhona chocolates online
Caramelized White Chocolate (Recipe)
Valrhona: Company Website
Coeur de Guanaja: Site for their new chocolate (Warning: Music)
Back to Chocolate School (Dorie Greenspan)
Making Religieuse at Valrhona (Papilles & Pupilles)
L’ecole Valrhona (Pastry-Network)