As our pas­sion for high­qual­ity co­coa in­ten­si­fies, Kate Wein­berg meets a dy­namic en­tre­pre­neur in­tent on turn­ing his es­tate-grown beans into Bri­tain’s best choco­late

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

‘Hello, I’m Wil­lie. Would you like some hot choco­late?” He’s not wear­ing a pur­ple frock-coat, but with an open­ing line like this, I’m quite ready to be­lieve in Oompa-Loom­pas. A Por­tak­abin on a drab in­dus­trial es­tate in Devon is an un­likely set­ting for a re­al­life Willy Wonka. It’s short on lol­lipop trees, psy­che­delic cor­ri­dors and or­angey dwarves with quiffs of green hair. But there’s no mis­tak­ing the bit­ter­sweet smell of co­coa that drifts through the door. This is the choco­late fac­tory of Wil­lie Har­courtCooze, one of the first Brits since Cad­bury to be grow­ing and pro­cess­ing his own choco­late.

“Come in, come in. Meet my wife Ta­nia. Then straight through, please. I’m about to start roast­ing.” I get a brief im­pres­sion of a large room full of an­ti­quated ma­chin­ery be­fore Ta­nia hands me a dou­ble espres­so­sized cup and I am whisked along to the bean room.

In the past 15 years, a love af­fair with high-qual­ity choco­late has swept through Bri­tain and Harcourt-Cooze is its new, am­bi­tious cupid. His aim is twofold: he not only as­pires to pro­duce the best, most ful­lyflavoured choco­late in Bri­tain, but also to re-in­vent our idea of co­coa al­to­gether.

“I have three types of beans,” says Wil­lie, briskly. “El Te­soro, from my farm in Venezuela, Caren­ero and Rio Caribe, which I have sourced from dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try. As you can see, they look com­pletely dif­fer­ent.” I peer closer at the un­shelled beans in each tub. They look iden­ti­cal to me. Ta­nia laughs: “He says that as if some of them are square. The rest of us still need la­bels.”

Wil­lie pours a tray of beans through a fun­nel into a gi­ant sil­ver-coloured dome and, over the roar­ing sound, tells me about the jour­ney of his choco­late from bean to bar. First, the co­coa is grown on his farm, El Te­soro, in the depths of Venezuela. Twice a year, he and Ta­nia har­vest the crop, keep­ing their fore­man, Ri­cardo, and his crew buzzing on rum and hot choco­late. Af­ter a two-week process of pick­ing the pods and fer­ment­ing and

dry­ing the beans, they trans­port them to the fac­tory.

Over the past three years, Wil­lie has sourced the mainly 1920s ma­chin­ery from all over Europe. Like a clas­sic car fa­natic, he has ren­o­vated many of the parts him­self, can­ni­bal­is­ing bits from other ma­chines and im­pro­vis­ing as he goes along. “Those are Ta­nia’s bread bowls,” he says, point­ing at a small sil­ver dome on top of one of the ma­chines.

He is just get­ting fired up on the sub­ject of ma­chin­ery (“I’ve got some places where I can get hold of a 1850s roaster,” he says, low­er­ing his voice as if giv­ing me a hot tip at the races) when a shadow crosses his face and he jumps up and runs over to the roaster. Af­ter a sec­ond, the roar stops.

“The door was open. I can’t con­cen­trate on the ma­chines and talk at the same time,” he says, al­most ac­cus­ingly, and be­comes ab­sorbed in pulling lev­ers and pour­ing in more beans.

I take the op­por­tu­nity to ask Ta­nia how the three chil­dren, Sophia (nine), William (seven) and Eve (four) like hav­ing Willy Wonka for a fa­ther. “Of course, they’re ex­cited by Daddy mak­ing choco­late. They’re young, so they’ve been a bit con­fused about it all, but the re­cent trip to Venezuela changed that. They’ve be­gun to pick up some Span­ish, William’s been help­ing his Dad with the ma­chines and Eve is just a mini choc­a­holic. Sophia is the sen­si­ble one, like me.”

And does lit­tle William want to be the next Wonka? “I have asked him whether he wants to make choco­late when he’s older,” says Ta­nia. “He says he just wants to count the money, which is a huge re­lief. He’ll be the first per­son in the fam­ily who is money con­scious.”

The roaster has started again and I glance at Wil­lie, who is stand­ing, hands on hips, an ex­pres­sion of in­tense con­cen­tra­tion on his face. What is it like, I ask Ta­nia, liv­ing with an ob­ses­sive? She looks a lit­tle guarded. “It’s been stress­ful, like any startup,” she says. “The money is still touch and go. We’ve got a great prod­uct, but I couldn’t go through all this again.”

In a Chan­nel 4 doc­u­men­tary made about them, Ta­nia comes across as al­most churl­ish in re­sponse to Wil­lie’s en­thu­si­asm; in the flesh, it’s clear that she acts as the per­fect bal­last to his char­ac­ter. Wil­lie, one feels, is a bal­loon and she is the one hold­ing the string.

Ta­nia puts it rather more sen­si­bly: “I sup­pose if I was as fre­netic as he was, it wouldn’t work out.”

Ob­serv­ing their con­trast­ing styles, it is odd to think that she is the one who is a di­rect de­scen­dant of the poet Samuel Tay­lor Co­leridge, au­thor of the fan­tas­ti­cal Kubla Khan. It is Wil­lie’s fam­ily who brings farm­ing to the equa­tion — al­beit of a quixotic kind.

Wil­lie’s fa­ther was half Burmese and, hav­ing fled Burma in the Sec­ond World War, fell in love with Wil­lie’s mother and her coun­try, Ire­land. They bought a tiny is­land just off the coast, but lived on the main­land, where they grew oats and wheat, kept goats and bees and cul­ti­vated a 120ft tun­nel of veg­eta­bles. The is­land was farmed for sheep and cat­tle, which would swim across the icy sea to reach the main­land. “We were all dressed in hand-me-downs, had over­grown hair and were con­stantly in­vent­ing ways to make money. It was very much The Good Life.”

Wil­lie stops sud­denly and stares at my hands: “You haven’t drunk your hot choco­late.” I look down in alarm. “Got caught up in the story,” I say, tak­ing a ten­ta­tive sip. It tastes rich, creamy and just sweet enough. Wil­lie scru­ti­nises my face as if study­ing a sus­pect in a po­lice line-up, gives a lit­tle nod and then con­tin­ues.

Af­ter leav­ing school, he went to Lon­don and worked in bars and clubs. He was con­sid­er­ing get­ting se­ri­ously in­volved in prop­erty, as his fa­ther had in Burma (“which would have been fine, I’m just not sure how happy it would have made me”), when, in 1996, he and Ta­nia de­cided to throw in their lot and move to Venezuela.

“We didn’t re­ally have a plan,” says Ta­nia, in her dead­pan way. “We be­gan by set­ting up some tourism — a small ho­tel, a restau­rant and some walks through the na­tional park. We also farmed ev­ery­thing that grew on the land, such as av­o­ca­dos, cashews and ginger. Wil­lie made a mango and nut­meg jam that be­came leg­endary.

“It just hap­pened that the co­coa was ex­cep­tional. Our farm is be­tween Val­rhona and Amadei, so it has an ex­cel­lent pedi­gree.”

She pauses and looks at Wil­lie. “Time for tast­ing, don’t you think?”

We walk into an­other room where Ta­nia opens a large fridge and pulls out some sealed con­tain­ers. The co­coa has been mixed with a lit­tle cream and sugar, chopped into small, bar­rel-shaped lumps and dusted with co­coa pow­der. “We make them into truf­fles be­cause it’s eas­i­est for tast­ing the dif­fer­ent bean flavours,” she ex­plains.

“You’ll see they’re very dis­tinct,” says Wil­lie, firmly. “One is very fruity, one is nutty and the other has a cit­rus note.”

I feel ner­vous again. So far, Wil­lie’s pas­sion and Ta­nia’s grounded approach to their busi­ness have dis­armed me, but at the men­tion of “cit­rus notes” my in­verse choco­late snob­bery kicks in. I think of my rather ugly en­coun­ters with 85% co­coa Lindt over the years and my heart sinks a lit­tle.

Wil­lie keeps his bright eyes on me as I bite into the first truf­fle. It is de­li­cious: rich and with an un­mis­take­able zing of grape­fruit. “Good,” Wil­lie nods ap­prov­ingly. “That’s be­cause it’s the cit­rus one. This one, from our farm is also very fruity, but tastes much more like ber­ries.” Again the flavour is ab­so­lutely clear: fruity, but now with­out the sharp­ness.

“And this one, Caren­ero,” he says, hand­ing me an­other, “is smoother, nutty.”

I steadily work my way through all the truf­fles I am handed, amazed at the dif­fer­ence be­tween them.

In my rather lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence, choco­late only tastes dif­fer­ent be­cause of the amount of co­coa in it (choco­late heretic that I am: the less, the bet­ter). Apart from the sadly missed Terry’s Choco­late Orange and — let me put my cards on the ta­ble here — the won­der­ful mint Aero, I’ve never thought of choco­late as hav­ing com­pletely dis­tinct flavours, like ice cream.

“That’s be­cause al­most all the choco­late you eat, in­clud­ing the high-qual­ity stuff like Mon­tezuma, comes from three main dis­trib­u­tors,” says Wil­lie. “They sup­ply the co­coa in bulk and so wash out its dis­tinc­tive flavours in or­der to make the taste more even. I want to rein­tro­duce co­coa with all its vari­ables and re­mind peo­ple that it is ac­tu­ally a savoury in­gre­di­ent that can be used in a huge num­ber of dishes, not just con­fec­tionery. Choco­late used to be a highly soughtafter food­stuff. For the Aztecs, it was so im­por­tant that they used it as cur­rency. Cortés said: ‘A sol­dier can walk all day on a cup of choco­late.’”

Lucky old Cortés: af­ter five min­utes of solid truf­fle con­sump­tion, it is all I can do to stag­ger over to one of the up­turned tubs and take a lit­tle rest.

“Even with all the good stuff that is around now, choco­late has ap­palling PR,” says Ta­nia. “When you don’t add all the rub­bish to it, co­coa is a mas­sive su­per­food, crammed full of an­tiox­i­dants, as well as be­ing an ap­petite sup­pres­sant. Dur­ing the mak­ing of the pro­gramme, I went on a choco­late diet for a cou­ple of weeks, eat­ing nor­mally and us­ing co­coa as a sup­ple­ment. I dropped seven or eight pounds.”

Mean­while, Wil­lie has ground the beans into sticky lumps and is pass­ing them through the re­finer, a ma­chine that seems to be made up of han­dles and gi­ant rolling-pins. For the first time in the process, the co­coa that ap­pears out of the other end re­sem­bles choco­late, ironed flat and splin­ter­ing into flakes. It is still very bit­ter to the taste.

“That’s be­cause I haven’t conched it yet,” says Wil­lie, his eyes very bright.

The conch­ing ma­chine, the last in the process, is clearly Wil­lie’s baby: a huge, cop­per­coloured beast with gi­ant pis­tons and plas­tic ex­trac­tor tubes that dan­gle like gi­ant in­sect legs. For sev­eral hours (or even days, de­pend­ing on the bean), the co­coa mass is gen­tly warmed and churned by large pis­tons un­til it be­comes very smooth and shiny and loses its bit­ter­ness.

I am re­minded of the scene in the 1971 film Willy Wonka & The Choco­late Fac­tory when Gene Wilder beck­ons the chil­dren into the nerve cen­tre of the fac­tory, where choco­late streams down in wa­ter­falls and be­comes the run­ning river that will carry Au­gus­tus Gloop away. “It’s churn­ing my choco­late,” says Wonka, point­ing to­wards the wa­ter­fall in great ex­cite­ment. “It’s ac­tu­ally churn­ing my choco­late!”

“So that’s now choco­late?” I say peer­ing at the molten mass in the conch­ing ma­chine.

“No, that’s choco­late liquor,” Wil­lie cor­rects me, im­pa­tiently. “That’s what I want peo­ple to un­der­stand. It’s now an in­gre­di­ent that can be used in ev­ery­thing from gravy, casseroles and Bloody Mary, to suck­ling pig. If you want, you can add cream and sugar and make it into a con­fec­tion.”

He shows me a large cylin­dri­cal block, like a gi­ant ver­sion of his truf­fles, which has been wrapped up in shiny gold pa­per and la­belled Venezue­lan Black. This is what can now be found on the shelves in Sel­fridges, where it was launched on Tues­day. Wil­lie hopes that other stores will fol­low suit, but be­cause of the na­ture of the pro­duc­tion, the ‘‘300% ca­cao’’ blocks will re­main lim­ited and high-end.

“Of course, we can’t com­pete with the big brands on price,” he says. “Peo­ple will have to un­der­stand that they are buy­ing an ar­ti­san prod­uct, some­thing that tastes en­tirely dif­fer­ent.”

From the mo­ment I first shook Wil­lie’s hand (not­ing the choco­late stain deep un­der his fin­ger­nails), I de­cided that he is some­one who might well suc­ceed and equally could fail, but is cer­tain to do ei­ther spec­tac­u­larly. He has all the in­gre­di­ents of a man who will get what he wants — charisma, ob­ses­sion and hy­per­ac­tive lev­els of en­ergy — but he now has to play the odds. In the tiny fac­tory that bris­tles with his pas­sion, it’s easy to bet on him, but how does a so­phis­ti­cated prod­uct like his re­ally fare on the mar­ket?

“I think the pub­lic are ready for it,” says Thomasina Miers, a television chef and owner of Wa­haca, a Mex­i­can restau­rant in Covent Gar­den. “We use high-qual­ity co­coa as a sea­son­ing in our sauce, mole, which is prob­a­bly too com­plex and in­tense for most home-cook­ing. But co­coa is a hugely in­spir­ing in­gre­di­ent and can be used imag­i­na­tively, not just for good hot choco­late. It can trans­form a veni­son stew, for ex­am­ple.”

As we say good­bye, Wil­lie says: “If I’m still in choco­late in five years’ time, I will have suc­ceeded.” For the first time that day, I don’t buy it. It seems to me that the words are mouthed in an ef­fort to tem­per the bur­geon­ing em­pire in his head. And it’s an em­pire that is within reach. Not fizzy lift­ing drinks or ev­er­last­ing gob­stop­pers, but suc­cess with the choco­late liquor, fol­lowed by a stream of choco­late prod­ucts for con­nois­seurs. For peo­ple, un­like me, who have no par­tic­u­lar way of eat­ing a crème egg.

I wish him the best of luck and he thanks me a lit­tle dis­tract­edly, be­fore re­turn­ing to his Heath Robin­son-style ma­chines, a fo­cused look in his eye. It strikes me how easy it is to be Roald Dahl’s Char­lie Bucket for a day. But for Wil­lie, the fan­tasy is very real.

Wil­lie’s Wonky Choco­late Fac­tory, a four-part Chan­nel 4 se­ries, starts on Sun­day, March 2 at 9pm.

Make or break: Devon­based choco­late pro­ducer Wil­lie Harcourt-Cooze with his wife Ta­nia and their three chil­dren – ‘We’ve got a great prod­uct, but the money is still touch and go’

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