Chocolate makers of the Lower Rhone

Bonnat's chocolate bar from 1903

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat prompted this article was our visit to the Salon du Chocolat in Paris last October. The key players of the chocolate world were there – intriguing characters – those we only know through their creations. All of a sudden, they were in front of us, sharing their chocolates and their stories.  They seemed to be in high demand by a long queue of people wishing to speak to them. Murmurings of ‘Excusez-Moi Monsieur’ were repeated every two minutes. We were only left with the joy of tasting some delightful mango ganaches but we had a whole list of unanswered questions.

As we left the Salon, we were beguiled to find out who these chocolate pioneers were –  the ones that put French chocolate on the world map. The Lower Rhone happens to be the region where tradition and innovation in fine chocolate started a chocolate revolution.  Below are a few stories on the region’s chocolatiers.

‘Bonnat – France’s legendary chocolatier’

It is a big day for Stéphane Bonnat. He has been running around his chocolate factory manically as he prepares to travel to Japan and Bangkok in few days time. “Chocolate season begins now and I am taking a small roasting machine from the 1920’s with me to demonstrate how to conch chocolate,” he says.

These are hectic times for his chocolate factory, located in Voiron, the Lower Rhone in France. Stephane might not need a formal introduction in his own country, not only because his single origin bars have been available in stores across France since 1910, but  he is considered as one of the country’s legendary chocolatiers.

Stéphane Bonnat at his chocolate factory in Voiron

Nevertheless, the international side of the business is also booming.  The demand for Bonnat’s respected bean-to-bar products is as strong as ever, with the original Bonnat shop in Voiron having become something of a site of pilgrimage for fans of fine chocolate.

How did all begin? His great grandfather, Felix Bonnat, founded the chocolate factory in 1884.  As Voiron is located on what was one of the principal trading roads to Switzerland, at a time when Lindt was revolutionizing the chocolate industry, the region became a magnet for all types of business related to cacao. “The response was an economic one; it is not in vain that four of the fine-artisan French chocolate businesses still remain in the Lower Rhone even now,” he explains.

Funnily enough, there is an older theory that justifies the reason why chocolatiers established themselves in the South of France. “In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the French Crown permitted Iberian Jews, fleeing religious persecution in Spain and Portugal, to settle in this part of France. They brought both cacao and the craft of making chocolate to the region,” explains Susan Terrio, author of the book Crafting the Culture and History of French Chocolate.

At the beginning of the 1900’s, the Bonnat chocolaterie had won its reputation. Local customers went crazy for the beautiful hand-made bonbons, orange krugetes that are still today’s bestsellers and pralines – elaborated with cacao from Cuba, Ecuador and from the farms of the Franceschi family in Venezuela.

Selection of bonbons and pralines from Bonnat chocolaterie from the early 1900's

The fact that they have had access to fine cacao from different parts of the world, encouraged Stephane Bonnat’s great-grandfather to produce the first box of single origin when nobody else even thought about it. “In 1984, we expanded our range of single origin, took them to the Salon du Chocolat in Paris and it was a revolution!” Nowadays, Bonnat chocolate bars come from the finest cacao plantations in 42 regions of the world.

Where do you see the future of cacao and chocolate? “The future depends on quality and sustainability. Consumers are demanding high quality chocolate and the difficult thing is maintaining this quality. It is important to visit the plantations, encourage the farmers to grow fine cacao and pay better prices for it. If we don’t reassure farmers’ labour, they will prefer working in another industry and abandon the cacao plantations.[  In countries like Dominican Republic, they prefer to work in tourism rather than in cacao. We don’t want to be left without fine flavour cacao,” concludes Stephane.

‘Morin – Four generation of tradition’

Chocolaterie A. Morin's orchard in Donziere

“I was a naughty boy, not allowed to be in the factory without my father’s supervision. It was late at night and I was by myself, standing on a stool, putting chocolate into boxes. I was five years old, a small boy and I when I had finished, I could not get down from the stool! My father came to find me and saw me crying,” remembers Franck Morin from Chocolaterie A. Morin in Donzere, as he recalls his first chocolate memories, with a big grin on his face.

Franck belongs to a fourth generation of artisan chocolatiers where expertise and chocolate manufacturing traditions have been passed down from father to son. 
His great grandfather, Gustave Morin, started working for the chocolate factory at the monastery of Aiguebelle in 1884. At that time, cacao beans arrived from Latin America, to the port of Marseille and were then transported by train straight to Donzere.

The making of pistachio chocolate bonbons by A.Morin Chocolaterie

By the 1920’s, Gustave had become one of the most prominent confectionary experts until WWII broke out, changing the spectrum of the artisan chocolate world. “There was not enough cacao and sugar available to produce chocolate and the few bonbons we made were sent to the German army”, explains Franck.

The factory closed down, moved to Morocco and Gustavo Morin was meant to move with it. He was fully trained and ready to go, but for family reasons he couldn’t.  He decided to open up his own business but due to the instability after the war, he could not cope and decided to quit.

“After the war, intensified competition from industrial manufacturers provoked the disappearance of most small-scale chocolatiers as well as the subsequent restructuring of the craft,” explains Terrio – and that is exactly what happened to Morin.

Franck Morin visits a cacao farm in Central America

In 1958, his grandfather decided to open the chocolate business again. At that stage, his father learnt the art of making pralines and bonbons with delicious almonds, hazelnuts, morello cherries, fresh from the company’s own orchard.  The tradition continued and now Franck is creating single origin bars with fine cacao from Peru, Madagascar, Vietnam, Venezuela, Sao Tome, among other countries.

“We don’t want to make a perfect chocolate, we want to keep having the opportunity of making chocolate with the finest cacao beans in the best possible way,” says Franck.


‘Pralus – A childhood passion’

François Pralus’ love of chocolate began at a very early age, in an environment rich with tradition, craft and exposure to the finest ingredients. In 1955 his father had invented the speciality for which he became famous, the ‘praluline’ – a much copied brioche with praline, made with toasted pink sugar coated almonds and hazelnuts. Auguste won many awards for his work, achieving national acclaim.

As François grew up he trained to follow in his father’s footsteps, a practice still common in France and Italy but almost lost in the English-speaking world.

Francois Pralus outside his shop in Roanne

From Brazil to Paris, François worked in renowned restaurants and undertook an internship at the chocolate department of the Ecole Lenôtre in Paris. Perhaps most significantly though was the time he apprenticed with his first master, the legendary chocolate maker Maurice Bernachon in Lyon – godfather of the modern chocolate movement in France.

Inspired by this great artisanal patissier chocolate maker, when François returned to Roanne after his travels he began to contemplate the creation of his own chocolate, from the bean. This would mean a return to the tradition of patisseries before industrialisation, where making chocolate was a normal part of their business.

After taking over the running of Pralus in 1988, it didn’t take long for François to set up his ‘chocolate laboratory’ in 1991. Soon his travels began again, this time to source beans for Pralus’ new chocolate making venture to produce a rare fine chocolate from local African beans and then on to Madagascar, Brazil, Indonesia – to name just a few.

In Madagascar Pralus have taken this idea a step further. On the island of Nossy-Bé, to the North West of the Madagascan main island, sixteen hectares of land have become the home of the first Pralus owned plantation.

“Since always, I have wanted to have my own plantation. Over the last years, I have travelled in the search of the ideal land. In 2004, I fell in love with Nosy Be Island, nicknamed the Scented Island in the North West of Madagascar a land of ylang-ylang, vetiver, peppers and vanillas,” he says.

With a staff of forty-four, and now producing beans for three different types of Pralus’ Madagascar chocolate, the plantation has a growing reputation and has provided the beans for some of Pralus’ best chocolate. “I do everything myself”, François Pralus explains, “instead of being supplied by specialist suppliers.”

Our trip to the Lower Rhone ends here. Unfortunately, we could not get to historical Lyon, a Unesco World Heritage site and home of Maurice Bernachon – one of the most famous names in French chocolate. We will leave that to our next quest.


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