Meet the real Willy Wonka…

First published in Devon Life

Cacao for Peace advocate, Willie Harcourt-Cooze’s chocolate making enterprise from bean to bar, was born out his sense of adventure which has continued to flourish through the chocolates themselves…

Willie fires into his office grinning, apologising for his hands, which are covered in dirt, before whisking me away across the yard to where the cacao beans are stored. The morning involves me chasing after the high-octane 53-year-old, dubbed the “real life Willie Wonka” (no, he doesn’t mind) as he simultaneously deals with myriad issues mainly to do with the arrival of a giant storage container including the vigorous sawing of a plank of wood, all the while being attentive and eager to share his passion for proper chocolate.

Maybe he’s had his daily dose of “rocket fuel” already? “I drink hot chocolate every day, boom boom boom,” he says beaming. “I swear it’s why I’m never ill, never get colds; it’s full of vitamins and minerals. People don’t realise what real chocolate is, it’s a real pick you up.”

It’s a potent but silky smooth concoction and as the girls in the office concur, Willie’s Cacao will change your life. “I eat it every day,” one says. “I don’t eat other chocolate anymore, because industrialised chocolate is not actually chocolate.”

Willie, the former partner of Soho private members club 41 Beak Street (where Mick Jagger had his 49th birthday), fell in love with Venezuela during a holiday with his ex-wife Tania, a descendent of 18th century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, with whom he has three teenage children, in 1993.

They went on to take over a 1,000-acre farm and lived amid the rainforest for a decade. The couple then moved to Ottery St Mary to take up the Coleridge family seat at Chanters House and a few years later Willie moved to mid-Devon and set up the factory in Uffculme where his production staff are all singing along to the radio as they work.

The subject of 2008 Channel 4 documentary, Willie’s Wonky Chocolate Factory, Willie’s Cacao is vastly popular, and it’s gaining traction; demand and manufacturing has doubled in the last two years.

Willie spends about a third of the year overseas either visiting cacao farmers or at international trade fairs. In addition to Venezuela, Willie also sources his beans from farmers in Indonesia, Madagascar, Peru and Colombia.

Willie is a purist; none of his beans have been contaminated with chemicals or pesticides and thereon-in, the process and ingredients are as pure as they get. Integrity underpins everything he does. Willie buys all his beans directly from the farmer, paying them a premium for their product. “There’s nothing anyone could ask me that I wouldn’t want to answer,” he says.

“I decided early on that I wanted to source beans from other places,” he adds. “I wanted to show the world that chocolate is like fine wine and every bean has a different flavour profile.

“I wanted to scream about the different tastes between these beans. We’re trying to reflect perfectly the flavour of single estate cacao.”

Is he on a perpetual… “crusade to find the perfect bean?” he interjects? “Something’s motivating me,” he answers. “I’m passionate about it all.”

Willie uses a mixture of state-of-the-art and miniature antique machines, and the chocolate is made in small batches and every step controlled for ultimate finesse. But it’s also his ambition to set up his own working chocolate factory museum which he hopes will only be a couple of years away. He shows me a German made machine from the 1870s that he imported from Minorca. “They’re beautiful things, they’re priceless really,” he says. Watching them in action and hearing the clunk of the machines interspersed with the glugging of the chocolate, which sloshes around for up to three weeks in the conching machine, is fascinating. The aroma is delectable too.

Up at the cacao bean storehouse, the scent of cacao hits me several few feet from the door. Inside are hundreds of sacks including 25 tonnes which arrived from Venezuela two days ago.

He says his enterprise has not been adversely affected by the extremely volatile political situation in the country. “During my last visit in May I drove 1,600km in five days visiting the farmers, and there were demonstrations everywhere,” he says. “It wasn’t just a few road blocks, they were everywhere. There is a humanitarian crisis going on.”

Willie’s Cacao was born out of a love for adventure, and in his quest for the world’s finest cacao beans he’s racked up a fair few adventures, like the time he tamed the moods of Venezuelan soldiers with chocolate, and his visit to Sierra Leone with Topsham paramotorist and photographer Dan Burton, who he brought with him to document.

“Dan had just flown over the village so everyone had seen the “flying man” and news had spread,” Willie tells me, re-enacting the adventure with a flailing of arms and facial expressions. “But even though we had the permission from the village elders to be there, the army decided they didn’t want us there anymore.

“We were in a restaurant and got a call telling us to leave immediately. But it was a five hour drive to the check point and when we arrived, the soldiers got on the phone and we heard them say, “it’s them”. There were big guns everywhere. But luckily, everything was conducted above board and this was just a case of getting caught up in bureaucracy, which is always happening to me in this business.”

Willie had been travelling to Colombia for five years to visit the farmers he’d been working with before the peace accord was signed in November 2016. On one occasion he ventured to a cooperative in an area, a six hour jeep ride from Arauca, deemed so dangerous the visit had to be entirely clandestine.

“Our guides, being very cautious, changed our route at the last minute,” he tells me. “We got there and just thought, we shouldn’t be here, in the middle of Farc territory. All around us were former coca fields now growing cocoa. When we got back to Bogota the national newspaper did a big piece on our visit because so few people had ventured there, where there were serious check points with 20 or 30 heavily armed people. It made the Sierra Leone checkpoints seem tame!”

The farmers had stopped growing plants for cocaine before Willie came along, however his support gave them the incentive not to return to the illegal drugs trade.

The fire for responsibly sourced and produced food was ignited in Willie when he was a child growing up in Ireland where his family, including five siblings, lived virtually entirely self-sufficiently off the land, even salting their own fish. “So when I went to Venezuela and saw the opportunity, it felt natural to do it,” he adds. “And I’ve always been a bit of a foodie.

“I think about chocolate from dawn to dusk, and wake up in the night thinking about new blends,” he continues.

Willie’s Cacao offers an extensive and adventurous sweet and savoury range and will soon include the most indulgent dark and milk chocolate praline truffles imaginable.

The entrepreneur is always experimenting and there are concoctions not yet on the market, such as his chorizo and black bean savoury chocolate, that he tries out on his staff.

“Do you cook?” he asks me. “If you do you’ll love this, and if you don’t you need this,” he says of his Mexican Mole Cacao, a concoction of cacao and spices. “If you’re going to have a dinner party, it will blow everyone away,” he grins.

What is he going to do with the rest of the day? “Rewire that thing back in,” he replies, referring to a pipe that was suspended 12 feet in the air that had to be removed when the massive container arrived. But I don’t get to find out the rest because his phone rings. “It’s my farm in Venezuela,” he calls out. “Great to meet you, thank you for coming! Ciao!” And with that, Willie disappears back into his chocolate factory.

Willie’s Cacao, the facts

There are no additives or preservatives in Willie’s Cacao chocolate which is as pure as it gets; his dark chocolate contains only cocoa solids, raw cane sugar, cocoa butter and milk powder.

With his small team of employees, Willie creates a wide variety of sweet and savoury chocolate products from passion fruit caramel milk chocolate pearls to cacao tea and his Mexican Mole Cacao cooking bar.

Williescacao.com lists a plethora of recipes and Willie’s Chocolate Bible weaving his story and recipes, was published in 2010.

Willie’s Cacao products are sold in 30 countries, with China and Japan Willie’s biggest overseas customers.

UK stockists include Waitrose and most recently, Sainsbury’s, as well as Darts Farm in Topsham.

From bean to bar

When ripe, the cacao beans are fermented in boxes.

The beans are then laid out to dry in the sunshine before being shipped to Uffculme.

The beans are then roasted before winnowing removes the shell, and the beans are then ground before the conching process, which removes bitterness and releases flavour, while other ingredients are added. This can take up to 21 days.

Then begins the tempering process (warming and cooling to set the chocolate), and finally, the moulding and wrapping.