He was 16 when he visited his first cocoa plantation. It was in Mexico. “I’m not about to forget it,” smiles Stéphane Bonnat. The plantation in question must have been 5,000 hectares, the fruits were the size of half a rugby ball. »
This emotion never left him. He made it his profession. The master chocolatier is at the head of the Bonnat house, one of the oldest chocolate factories in France created in 1884 in Voiron (in Isère), where he himself grew up. “I learned to ride a bike in the family laboratory where I started working at the age of 14. As a child, I scattered products everywhere to make a magic recipe and apart from ending up with sticky fingers and chocolate all over my clothes, not much happened…”
Like his father and grandfather before him, Stéphane is the heir of Felix Bonnat, the patriarch and founder of the chocolate factory. He didn’t know him but he knows everything about him. His predisposition to become a liquor maker, his talents as a pastry chef and his great curiosity: “At the Paris exhibition in 1880, he discovered modern chocolate. However, at the time, part of his family lived in South America. From a side activity as a confectioner, he made it his main activity and abandoned liqueurs. »
He also recognizes in Felix a taste for business. Which, like chocolate, is passed down from generation to generation among the Bonnats. So, two years ago, when Stéphane moved his production facility 6 kilometers from Voiron to Saint-Étienne-de-Crossey, he had one of his ancestor’s machines made identical to it from 1880. It is the Tarare cocoa breaker which is used to crush and shell the beans, these precious nuggets. “The materials are certainly a little more modern but we remain on an artisanal process. » And this is verified across the entire production chain, from grinding to conching, this technique invented in 1883 by another chocolatier, the Swiss Lindt, and which removes the acidity, the bitterness, to reveal the aromas .
The great wines for the hundred years
“Chocolate is also a story of the palate,” describes the manager. Making it work is probably the most complicated part. » His recipe: “Know-how”, inherited from his peers and recognized worldwide for almost a century and a half. And also a little boldness. “To celebrate the centenary of our chocolate business, in 1984, my parents created a new box of pure origin chocolates, “Les grands crus” (which became the historic Grands Crus of Maison Bonnat, Editor’s note). These are the very first tablets made from beans of the same origin, promoted as an exceptional product. I was with my father at the International Chocolate and Confectionery Exhibition in Paris and we were not predicted a great future. These chocolates were considered too strong… I was disappointed. Finally, the major chocolatiers all offer one or two pure origin chocolates in their range. »
The young entrepreneur, who would take the reins of the House a decade later, learned a lesson: “Don’t try to please customers because you are always wrong. I try to make a product that I find pleasant to eat. Chocolate is this great unknown that everyone encounters. We know that it is made of cocoa and sugar but behind it, there are a whole bunch of technical details unknown, even to professionals… And I am amazed when I see that I am almost the only one traveling around the plantations four times a year. This is the heart of the business! » And it always gives him the same emotion.