Phillip Island Chocolate Factory in Victoria, Australia, draws 2.5 lakh visitors a year. Meet the man and his wife, the founders, who also serve Indian food in their café.

I really wasn’t prepared to meet Panny. I mean, prepared to meet who he was. When we visited the famed Phillip Island Chocolate Factory aka Pannys Amazing World of Chocolate named after its founder-owner-manager Panny, we had been told we could meet the man himself at the end of the factory-tour.

The tour of factory located in Australia’s Phillip Island took over an hour. At the entrance was a shop which sells Panny’s chocolate products — the only place where you can buy them in the country — all handmade Belgian chocolates. A delicious white truffle is a signature product (the recipe is secret) and free samples are given out to every visitor at the entrance. Glossy finish, velvety feel — it was delectable.

We were first led through an educational exhibit where the entire process of chocolate-making is sequentially displayed — from the harvesting of cocoa to the finished product available on shelves. Chocolate in history, in advertising and in art are other aspects about which they tell you at Panny’s.

We also walked past vats of swirling liquid chocolate — white, milk and dark. And then an amazing chocolate waterfall, where about 400 kg of molten chocolate cascades down gently. No, you can’t drink from it, it’s safely ensconced in glass. We also saw some impressively imaginative chocolate creations — a life-size statue of Michelangelo’s David and an enormous mosaic of Edna Everage, an Australian celebrity, made of 12,000 pieces. Also on display were miniature villages and one fascinating display with penguins which spins around at the press of a button — a big favourite with children.

And there were many fun aspects in the form of several games. Visitors love this interactive aspect of the factory. You can play games of every kind. We watched adults playing as enthusiastically as the kids but then that is what chocolate does to us, or most of us at least. And the reward is almost always a piece of chocolate. Pressing buttons, pulling levers and squealing with delight and clapping their hands as the chocolate-prize landed in their hands, the children seemed to be having a great time as their pleased parents watched on.

Finally came the meeting with the award-winning chocolatier Panny. Here is our boss, our guide announced as a swarthy middle-aged man approached us with his sari-clad, bindi-sporting wife who both said hello and then vanakkam. And chatted with us over sambar, rice and appalams!

Panny is short for Kondanapanny Letchumanan. He would probably spell that name Kodandapani Lakshmanan if he were in India, I thought. Centuries ago, his ancestors migrated from South India to Malaysia. Panny was born in Malaysia and studied to become a mechanical engineer. He spent years working in a coconut and cocoa plantation in Papua New Guinea. “I always loved chocolate. I often experimented with making chocolate, whenever I found time. I came up with some crude versions,” he laughs, “but I was learning.” He moved to Australia in 2000.

Chocolate was by now his magnificent obsession. He resolved to set up his own chocolate-related establishment and did a lot of homework “during which I learnt a great deal about the art and business of chocolate,” says Panny. And the chocolate factory was born in a small way at Phillip Island. He worked hard at perfecting the technique and ingredients. “To make a great chocolate you have to know the perfect tempering technique, the right blend of ingredients and ideal fillings… I worked hard and long to gain this knowledge.”

Several games and creative exhibits were added. The factory was later expanded to include a retail outlet and a café which offers not only chocolate desserts, Australian specialities, but also Indian food, complete with rice, sambar, appalam, curries. Today, Panny’s chocolate factory draws 2.5 lakh visitors every year. Working alongside Panny are his wife Premalatha and daughter Nithia who sculpts many of the chocolate creations on display and sale.

A vast assortment — nearly 200 varieties — of handmade chocolate is produced here. “Truly handmade,” stresses Panny, inviting us to check out the staff rustling up chocolates, and moulding them into various shapes, including some very real-looking shoes in the room nearby — visible through a glass partition which seals off the production area from the restaurant.

And he is not about to sit back and rest. He has more plans which he will, however, not divulge.

So, what keeps this chocolate artisan going? The profits, the family support, the rising reputation, the growing surge of visitors…?

“Chocolate! Good chocolate melting in the mouth — it is a great feeling, don’t you think?” he says.