WILLIE’S WACKY CHOCOLATE FACTORY
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
‘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’