Flavour ProfileThe Man Behind Willie's Cacao | 0 Comments
FOUNDER AND BEAN-TO-BAR CHOCOLATE EXTRAORDINAIRE WILLIE HARCOURT-COOZE SPILLS THE BEANS
He’s been earmarked as England’s real life “Willie Wonka”. Not just because of his coincidentally Dahl-esque name and choice of vocation, but because of his truly extraordinary persona. To say Willie Harcourt-Cooze was a passionate chocolate maker would be a vast understatement. He sees cacao as a way of life. He speaks the velvety vernacular of chocolate and puts the panache in ganache across the world. He’s also on a lifelong mission to create the most dazzling flavour profiles he possible can – whether that be in his single estate 100% cacao bars or dark chocolate tablets married with pure, organic essences.
There hasn’t been a Briton since George Cadbury who has grown, manufactured and branded his own chocolate label from bean-to-bar – which Willie does under his own brand and label Willie’s Cacao. And Britain has certainly responded to what cannot be denied as a growing trend in consuming chocolate with higher cacao percentages – the most recent Neilsen report from 2011 shows that sales of dark chocolate bars have doubled in the UK in the last 2 years. This clearly shows a renaissance in the consumer’s desire for the purer form of chocolate, cacao – a word which by definition means “food of the gods”.
Yet while Willie is practically a household name in the UK because of the Channel 4 “Willie’s Wonky Chocolate Factory” TV series, the fuss and fame that could come with being a TV persona are not within his purview. For Willie, everything comes down to the source itself: the cacao bean. From his humble beginnings growing up on a small island farm in Ireland, where his family were basically self-sufficient – from catching and smoking fish to making cheese, yoghurt and honey – to adventures that led him to purchasing a magical cacao cloud forest farm in Venezuela, Willie’s zest for making chocolate and his ability to be both “a doer and a dreamer” are an inspiration to many. None perhaps more inspired than EDE ONLINE’s Managing Editor, Amy Morison, who conducted an exclusive interview with Willie recently for the website. Thanks to the coordinating efforts of BrandOpus – the company responsible for Willie’s spectacular packaging designs – the interview was possible. You can read the transcript below.
How is your personality reflected in your line of work? You mention that your passion for cacao was born from a sense of adventure. Would you say that this personality trait – this sense of adventure – is important for all growers/makers/creators in the food and beverage sector?
In terms of my personality, well, I’m very focused. I tend go at things like a bull in a China shop when I’m passionate about something. And with cacao I have found something that I am extremely passionate about. Also, my love for food in general comes from my youth in Ireland. Growing up in the 60's on a farm which was self-sufficient – my mum was a bit of a hippy and we basically grew and made whatever we needed.
So I’ve always been passionate about food but I didn’t find my true passion in cacao straight away. I had a decorating business which was quite successful and I was passionate to the extent in that I found the work satisfying and I would always get the job done – so again, the focus was there.
But I suppose for me it was travelling and the sense of adventure that was always appealing. I think this came from watching Westerns and growing up in Ireland. Farming life was hard. So the desire for adventure was also always there. I mean, when I was a kid, a banana seemed exotic! So the tropics had definite appeal.
I think in life there are points where you don’t know what you’re doing as you haven’t quite found that one thing you really want to do. And so when I found cacao – or when cacao found me – that was it. I knew it. It filled so many blanks. It combined my need for adventure with passion. I go around the world – above and below the equator – to explore and find new beans.
Simply put – it’s all about passion. You need passion or you’re not driven. In the food business this is especially valid. For me, it is the passion that gives me my focus. And you have to be focused. When you’re younger you keep thinking of all the things you’ve still got to do, whereas I’ve never had that feeling when it comes to cacao. I remember having half a tonne of beans once and noticed some of the insides were a slightly different colour. So I had to open all the beans on a table by hand to check them all. Each bean weighs about a gram so you can imagine the time involved, but staying focused and just having the attitude of “I’ve got to do it” and just doing it makes all the difference to what you bring to your end product. You do whatever it takes to get the best result.
Who was/is your mentor?
I have many people who helped me. I don’t really think ‘mentor’ is the best word as there wasn’t a cacao mentor, but there were certainly people who advised me. Marco Pierre White [British celebrity chef, restaurateur and TV personality] was a great mate when we were kids and he helped me a lot in terms of marketing and branding. I’ve always been the first to admit it if I can’t do something and seek help. And with cacao, well I lived in the jungle for 10 years and then came back to the UK and just thought “wow” – I was even rusty when it came to doing invoicing. Having to work out receipts and then marketing and packaging on top of that, was just impossible. And Marco was very helpful with that.
In fact I tapped into various friends’ knowledge and expertise for all those kinds of things in which I had no idea about. They were happy to help with whatever it was – not about the actual cacao per se – but about products, branding and so forth. The team at BrandOpus – who are responsible for my product packaging – have been extremely helpful in both the design and branding of Willie's Cacao. So in fairness, lots of people helped in the creation of Willie's Cacao.
Describe your idea of the perfect chocolate experience.
In an eating sense? If I was thinking ‘perfect’ I would immediately be drawn to the flavour profile of the beans. And the experience that comes with that. There is always a moment of excitement when I make a ganache out of beans that I’ve grown from the farm. When I used to travel and stay with people on the farm I always made a point of hand-roasting the beans, shelling them by hand and grinding them in a little coffee grinder so that they were fine to taste, then combined them with cream to make a simple ganache. There is nothing more magical than tasting and eating a ganache with the people who work these farms.
These moments are the most satisfying moments of eating chocolate – when you’re in countries that don’t traditionally eat chocolate. And a ganache is one of the best things to taste chocolate in its most pure form, as you get those spicy, earthy tastes – and to watch their faces as they experience it – basically for the first time – well, there is never anything quite like it. There is this guy that I work with on the farm who tilts his head when he’s tasting something and closes his eyes; he looks like going to paradise ... for me it is moments like these that are truly wondrous. It’s as if you were watching a child experiencing chocolate for the first time. And the irony of it is that they actually grow the cacao!
You’ve mentioned that newer generations are beginning to appreciate chocolate in both a savoury and sweet context (as they do in Central and South America, and did back in ancient times). Do you think this trend towards using cacao in various cooking contexts will continue? How else do you think people’s tastes and preferences will change when it comes to chocolate?
Yes, definitely. While cutting edge chefs are always looking to experiment with cacao, there is also now a desire to experiment in the mainstream. Look back 10 years ago and you couldn’t have sold a cloudy olive oil.
But now people are asking a lot more questions than they used to, such as, where is it coming from, how is it produced, and what can I do with it? Because once they have these ingredients they want to experiment. Without a doubt people are more adventurous. You can see it in the ingredient sections in supermarkets.
And using olive oil is perhaps a good analogy. People have really gotten into the different flavours and are prepared to pay for higher quality. They realize that to deliver a single estate olive oil or chocolate is going to cost more but will obviously taste better than highly processed, mass-produced stuff. People are generally searching for these kind of products now – both major buyers and consumers.
Specific to chocolate though, would you say people’s tastes are evolving?
Absolutely. I envisage in about 10 years time from now that people will have identified the really fantastic haciendas around the world and they will be able to distinguish them like fine wines. They will recognize that these single estate chocolates are limited editions because there will only be a certain quantity of beans from that particular place.
Basically there are three factors that make for a great cacao bean: first is the DNA of the plant itself, so the type of bean – whether it is from Venezuela or Java – and there is post-harvest, how the beans are fermented and dried, and then it’s down to the chocolatier. People have wildly different ways of doing things to create flavours – obviously there is the roast and then there is how much cacao butter is used. Over roasting can mask the delicate flavour profile of the bean and adding to much cacao butter can prevent longevity of flavour when consumed. And there is an enormous trend to flavour chocolate too which perhaps is only to disguise the fact that the actual beans are not very good.
Without a doubt, we’re moving along. More recently people have been looking into the merits of chocolate in the same way that they view wine. Which is actually crazy when you think about how far chocolate is behind wine when cacao has been around for so long! We’ve been in the dark ages when it comes to chocolate you could say. Well certainly in Britain, not having had a small premium chocolate brand for a while as all the makers got gobbled up by big conglomerates. A lot was lost, such as knowledge, machinery and so on.
You make a point of using traditional machinery in your factory because you say it captures the subtle and unique flavours of the cacao that modern machines simply cannot. This idea of going back to traditional methods and origins can be applied to other food and beverage sectors. Do you think that the average consumer today is tuning into this trend? Also, the idea of going back to our roots and using traditional methods and ingredients is somewhat comparable to the principles of the Slow Food movement. What are your thoughts about that?
On the subject of using old machines or traditional machines, it’s not really just about that. It’s about producing small batches – that’s really the key. And touching, tasting and smelling all the way through. People these days can get so distant from tasting things. When I was investigating factories in order to start manufacturing, lots of people advised me not to – they saw it as a nightmare to be in charge of the various processes.
But I think that makes all the difference. I have the ability to tweak things during any part of the process – from fermentation to the actual manufacturing – which gives me an enormous benefit in getting the chocolate to taste exactly how I want it.
So this idea of producing food in an authentic way [which is the basis of Slow Food movement] well I grew up like that. Doing things myself, being involved in every single process – not skipping any steps. Really my factory is an extension of that. It involves the small producer even more. It’s also about buying local, caring about where ingredients come from, how they are produced and what affect they will that have on the economy.
In your opinion, which countries produce the best cacao beans for chocolate? Can you name 5 must-try chocolates (based on country) to our readers?
I liken all my chocolate bars to my children, I don’t have any favourites! Which is so true, it’s about personal preference. While the actual beans all cost different amounts and are all premium, I actually price my chocolate bars the same across the board. I do that on the principle because I don’t want people thinking one is better than the other. Because it really is about personal preference when it comes to flavour. And I think I’ve myself proved right there as there is little discrepancy in the sales between the different cacao and chocolate bars.
What are your favourite chocolate and beverage pairings?
Rum and cacao complement each other superbly. I really enjoy a golden rum with chocolate in Venezuela. A rum raison truffle is hard to surpass. I also make a killer chocolate vodka with sloes. It is part of our culture in Britain to collect sloes after the first frost to make vodka. I then add chocolate and let is settle for 6 months. I find this drink is a real winner –the chocolate perfectly complements the sloe.
Can you name five items that you always keep in your fridge at home?
Well, I always have a hot sauce. Currently I have one from a cacao expedition in Sierra Leone, where a restaurateur gave me a big pot. And I have another from the UAE which was also a gift from a restaurateur. I love hot sauce, it is a great complement to food and there is a sense of romance about it. I also always have a double cream in there as I’m regularly knocking up desserts. Duck eggs and a ripe avocado are also staples in the fridge – this is because every morning I wake up to a breakfast of toast with avocado, fried duck eggs and a a liberal coating of cacao and hot sauce. Oh and I always have a piece of ginger – I have a romance with ginger too.
Besides your quest to create the world’s best chocolate what are your interests and hobbies?
Well, my life is really all about chocolate. I do love fishing but you know I’ve got caught up in this absolute fascination with chocolate. I genuinely feel that it is my calling. And I’ve been amassing old fashioned chocolate machines in a shed next to my factory. For example I’ve been recently collecting machines from shutdown factories in France. Old roasting and shelling machines. Much bigger than what I have now. I found one most incredible chocolate factory which had been closed for 7 years and I bought many of their machines. So when I’m not actually making chocolate I’m refurbishing these machines. It would be a dream to recreate a proper old chocolate factory. So in answer to your question, no, I think about chocolate 24/7! I sort of hope – like most parents I imagine – that one of my children will be interested in taking over the business. People ask, what is your take on the chocolate business, are you interested in making money, building it up and selling it? And the truth is I’m not, I’m not in it for the money at all. I have my farm in Venezuela which is where I’ll head when I get old and retire. So there we go.
The green/organic lifestyle: how important is it to you personally and to the chocolate industry?
For me it’s all about the beans. I take it on good faith that nobody I know is using any pesticides in the cacao farm. Actually there’s no doubt – I’ve personally been to all the farms and know from the production. There is a lot of hype about the organic seal. For me it is about making the best chocolate, which comes from the best beans and these are naturally organic because that’s where the best flavours are. So I don’t need to put an organic label on my products as such. At the end of the day the flavours are only going to be as good as the ingredients from which they are made.
Are you an absolute purist when it comes to chocolate – ie, do you ever eat milk chocolate?
Wow, actually I laughed when I saw this question because yes, I actually have made a milk! The thing is I love a bit of a challenge. I’ve also got to go back a step here. Chocolate really comes from cacao – which has been a drink for thousands of years, since 2000BC. And it was always served as a drink. Cacao was revered back then – it was more valuable than money and was named accordingly – cacao meaning “food of the gods”. And cacao isn’t at all like a chocolate bar – it is bitter and spicy. It was also a part of the staple diet back in Central and South America. It was a pick me up but it also contains essential amino fats.
So when you talk about purism, well it has to be about cacao. And I’m a hot cacao freak now. In fact I gave up coffee a while back and instead have a hot cup of cacao now – not first thing in the morning but a bit later as a treat, as something to look forward to. And I have to say, it’s changed my life. It has become a lifestyle; a religious exercise if you will. As it gives me equilibrium – I really believe that. Drinking cacao like this is enjoying it in its purest form, which is definitely a big part of my lifestyle.
Having said that, producing a milk and white chocolate has provided me with a challenge. Generally a person who eats dark doesn’t tend to eat milk or white. White in particular – it’s decorative stuff. But the challenge for me was to produce a milk that instead of using the standard 20% solid cacao, I used 44% and Venezuelan cacao butter. Using this butter in a milk chocolate allows the flavour notes to dance about. And it’s called ‘Milk of the Gods’.
Also, with white chocolate, I’m not a white chocolate eater but I’ve made one. I don’t feel like I’ve sold out on any morals here as there are many uses for white chocolate, especially in food. In mine, sugar is actually the smallest ingredient. It melts beautifully for a chef. It’s made just using the natural aromas of the Venezuelan cacao butter with milk and cane sugar. No-one’s denying white chocolate is a decorate thing. But you need the passion to make the products because in the end it still comes down to making the best chocolate – white, milk or dark.
What inspires you most when it comes to making chocolate?
I love it. I feel privileged that I enjoy so much. I find it constantly motivating. I’ve had my factory in Devon for 4 years and my farm for 16 years. Four years in the factory would be enough for most people, but I’m still at it with a passion. I’m finding new things out all the time and I love learning, it ignites me.
Looking back to before you went to Venezuela in 1993, could you ever have imagined then that you would become a chocolate maker?
Well you could definitely say I dreamed of it. I’m a great dreamer and a believer and I definitely had a dream while I was there [in Venezuela]. I read the ‘cacao bible’ which described where they first made cacao, which was in this ‘cloud forest’ and there was absolute magic to it. When I arrived there, I was smitten. Completely. I originally dreamt of creating a chocolate factory there too, but that was not realistic, however, I’ve been able to do that back in the UK. So yes I did dream about it, but not necessarily how it would happen exactly. You know, the old motto, nothing tried, nothing gained. And I do feel I’m privileged to do something I’m so passionate about.
How do you prepare your hot chocolate?
I take 25g off the bar every morning, then pour half a mug of boiled water (125ml) over that. I only coarsely chop the cacao so I let it sit there for a while once I’ve added the water, then I heat it again, and whisk it. This allows the cacao to emulsify and it starts to grow quite thick. You can sweeten it with honey but I just add chilli.
Once it’s gone thick drink you can even go one step further by getting a little hand blender and blending it until it goes frothy and then velvety. It’s like those depictions of the Aztecs pouring cacao from great heights to produce this beautiful velvety effect.
Who in the world would you most like to sit down with for a hot cup of chocolate?
My dad. Unfortunately he’s passed away. There have been so many things I’ve been able to draw on from my dad. Fixing the tractor while growing up on the island in West Cork, all those kind of skills that I picked up on, I use them all now. And to sit down and have a hot cup of chocolate with him – so he could see how I’ve put those skills into practice, well, that would be it for me.
What advice would you give to your younger self if you could?
That’s a tough one. Most people would say that they wished they had started earlier. I wouldn’t. The reality is that all the things that happened to me in my life, including all the jobs I’ve done, have made me who I am. From working as a busboy for Wolff Olins to working in sheep station in Australia to hiking in the mountains in Peru. Every one of those experiences has made me who I am today. It couldn’t have happened quicker. I needed those experiences. I had to get all those things lined up.
If you could choose your last meal in life, what would it be?
My last meal would be the way I start it every day. Duck eggs and avocado on toast with a grating of cacao and a healthy dollop of hot sauce!
Read more about Willie’s Cacao products, TV series and cookbooks on his website williescacao.com
Special thanks to Charlotte Ellis of BrandOpus for making the above interview with Willie possible.