Who better to talk to on the eve of St Valentine’s than Devon’s artisan chocolate maker Willie Harcourt-Cooze AKA Britain’s own Willie Wonka?
Willie Harcourt-Cooze’s passion for pure chocolate began almost 20 years ago in a typically fairytale kind of way. On a beach in Venezuela he met an old man who told him about a beautiful cocoa farm up in the cloud forest. This resulted in Willie and his girlfriend Tania (later his wife) staying on the farm, picking and roasting cacoa beans, grinding them by hand in an old coffee grinder and making a simple cup of pure hot chocolate.
Willie says: “I can still smell the rich aroma of those beans dancing in the pan; that first sip of chocolate opened my eyes and I was smitten. After 15 minutes I had this fantastic sense of well being and understood why chocolate was called Food of the Gods. It’s a way of life.’
More regular folk wouldn’t immediately decide to roast and hand grind the cacao beans but, then, there is nothing regular about Willie Harcourt-Cooze. His childhood on a farm in Ireland undoubtedly prepared him for a life of adventure – growing everything from scratch, catching fish and tinkering around with farm machinery; he could dismantle a carburettor virtually before he could read. His family were he says : ‘brown rice weirdos” who had bees for honey and a goat to make their milk, butter and cheese before such things became commonplace.
It’s this spirit of adventure paired with passion and extraordinary amounts of self-belief which enabled Willie to bring his 100 per cent pure chocolate to the mainstream.
He runs Willie's Cacoa from his factory in Uffculme, Devon, a ramshackle space (he built it for £3000) which houses the beloved antique chocolate making machinery he sourced from Spain. Those early carburettor skills are really paying off, he maintains and repairs all the equipment himself. With Willie there is a strong sense of a maverick scything his own path, fuelled by the belief that eventually everything will come good. And, of course, it did come good – Channel 4 spotted the magic in 2008 and the successful Willie’s Wonky Chocolate Factory TV show was born. A £500,000 deal with Waitrose followed.
Despite a global recession that has floored so many small businesses Willie is poised to launch his latest invention – milk and white chocolate bars. Being a self-proclaimed purist he’s taken a bit of flak for this but defends himself saying:”Sugar is actually the smallest ingredient. It’s all about the aromas and flavours.’ No doubt the 44 per cent Milk of the Gods and El Blanco bars (you heard it here first) will be a hit.
Along with a great deal of hard work (he spent 10 years roasting beans and playing around with the fermentation process to perfect his chocolate) Willie attributes his success to not being afraid to ask for advice. At the beginning he relied heavily on the wisdom of successful entrepreneurial friends, Marco Pierre White included. And, of course, there’s his zealot-like faith in the power of 100 per cent chocolate.
Willie says:‘We have a lot of people coming through the factory – engineers, electricians and so on – who are often quite stressed until I give them a cup of hot chocolate. Often they will say to me: ‘my mood has completely changed.’ And I will say ‘people have forgotten what chocolate is about. The reason it is called Food of the Gods is because it has these chemical attributes which empower people.’
One final question remains. What would Willie dream up for his perfect cacoa-infused Valentine’s menu?
‘For vegetarians I would make porcini risotto with cacao, otherwise belly of pork with spiced cacoa. And for pudding it would have to be classic chocolate mousse.’
All recipes are available in Willie's Chocolate Cookbook