Gold-flecked Puyricard chocolatesIn the countryside just outside Aix en Provence, Puyricard, a luxury chocolate factory, offers tours, courses and, of course, chocolates for sale. It also has an extraordinary story behind it. logoClick here to book a hotel in Aix en Provence

The patriarch of the house of Puyricard, Jean-Guy Roelandts, was a Belgian citizen and mining engineer who left his homeland in 1948 to settle in Léopoldville in what was then the Belgian Congo.

There he met his wife, Marie-Anne. But, after the Congo achieved independence in 1960, the country (renamed Zaire, then eventually the Democratic Republic of Congo) began to slip into chaos.

The couple decided to acquire a skill that they could take away with them when it was time to leave - and that skill was chocolate-making. It's an art for which their Belgian homeland is famous - but which was hardly widespread in the heart, heat and humidity of Africa.

The Roelandts bought equipment on a short trip to Brussels and learned how to use it by trial and error back in Léopoldville despite the difficult conditions. Gradually they built up a small business there, supplying chocolates to diplomats and expatriates; their clientele included the then-President Mobutu.

Tanguy Roelandts of PuyricardBy 1967 the country was in turmoil and the Roelandts looked for somewhere new to live in Europe - preferably a French-speaking place with a sunny climate.

The area around Aix en Provence just fit the bill nicely. They bought a house in the village of Puyricard and began making chocolate there in the kitchen.

Chocolate, as the Roelandts' son, Tanguy (pictured), recalls today, is not really a gastronomic tradition in Provence either, where the local palate prefers candied fruit and other sweetmeats.

But his father (who once ran an advertising agency) embarked on an intensive marketing drive. He persuaded local stores to stock their products, and eventually the couple opened their own first shop in Puyricard.

Today the business has expanded exponentially, with a network of stores in South East France, as well as Toulouse and Paris, selling some 100 different types of chocolates.

Most of them are moulded chocolates with fillings of ganache, praline, caramel or liqueur. Selected celebrity chocs are decorated with specks of 24 carat gold (pictured top left). In a nod to provençal culture, Puyricard also produces the classic Aix speciality, the calisson.

Puyricard offers tours of the factory (pictured below) and chocolate-making classes. In both cases they must be booked in advance on the Puyricard website; you should not just turn up unannounced.

The tour lasts between one and two hours, depending on the group size and how many questions they have. It's available in English by prior arrangement.

After a ten minute introductory film, you're given a recyclable smock and charlotte ("shower cap") to put on in the interests of hygiene. As you enter the factory, you're assailed immediately by a powerful scent of chocolate.

The you're shown - with the help of quite a few free samples! - the various processes by which the calissons and chocolate are made. Everything is painstakingly done by hand and you can understand why fine chocolates are quite expensive. If you speak French, you can chat to the workers as you go round.

The Puyricard Chocolate FactoryPuyricard designs its own machinery as well, so the whole process is highly artisanal - although we were a bit disappointed to learn that they don't manufacture the raw chocolate themselves but buy it in blocks.

Puyricard doesn't just make individual chocolates: you'll also see various limited edition delicacies, chocolate sculptures and photos of the famous choc frocks made by Puyricard and other master-chocolatiers for France's Salons du Chocolat fashion shows. At the end there's more tastings - so make sure you bring a good appetite.

The tour is open to children over the age of ten, and the factory is accessible to visitors of restricted mobility. Various levels of chocolate-making lessons and courses are available too.

They are held all year round, except November and December. Then the factory is working at top speed to meet the Christmas rush, when it scores 42 per cent of its total annual sales, with another mini-peak around Easter.

Where: The factory is on the avenue Georges de Fabry, 13540 Puyricard. Tel: (+33) 4 42 28 18 18. It lies roughly 10km / 6 miles north of Aix. Website for Puyricard.

Ordering chocolate by mail is tricky, since the Puyricard products are made with fresh ingredients and have an estimated shelf life of just three weeks. However, American readers might be interested in Puyricard Signature, a club which claims to be able to speed newly-made chocs to its members.

Click here to read about tours of the Léonard Parli calisson factory, also just outside Aix.


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