PUBLISHED: 14:23 07 July 2009 | UPDATED: 16:07 20 February 2013
Judi Spiers meets Willie Harcourt-Cooze, a man who produces chocolate like you've never seen before in Tiverton
It's not usually a compliment to tell a man you can smell him before you see him, but when he's a six-foot Viking of a fella and smells of chocolate, well it's most girls' fantasy! Willie Harcourt-Cooze, commonly known as Devon's own Willy Wonka, is such a man.
Willie grew up on a windswept island off the west coast of Ireland where, so the story goes, a childhood spent making cheese, smoking fish and picking fruit inspired his passion for food and adventure. It's the stuff that Mills & Boon novels are made of, so here goes.
Once upon a time, when exploring the Venezuelan Andes with his wife, Tania, and her sister, Sophie, mostly on horseback, he found himself "where the mountains meet the sea", in a place called Choroni. Here on a beach he met a man called Mervyn who rented umbrellas, and he told Willie about a friend who had a cocoa farm for sale. Willie went to see the farm and discovered what was to become a lifetime passion - chocolate. He bought the plantation and hacienda and eventually planted 10,000 cacao trees. That was back in the early '90s. By the late '90s, he was selling his 100% cacao to the locals.
Before long, after relocating to Devon, he was sitting in Hell's Kitchen with his old pal Marco Pierre White, getting advice on launching his chocolate in this country. I say 'his' chocolate because Willie's original product bears no resemblance to any sweet, milk or plain confection you've ever tasted. Nor does it look like any I've ever seen. As the result of finding an unusual A pipe, Willie produced what has become his signature cylindrical bars, which are intended to be used in cooking - and not just in chocolate puddings, but in everything from Bloody Marys to gravies, chillies, spaghettis and roasts!
"Chocolate's really all about flavour," he explained, "not necessarily the percentage. It's an ingredient. What's exciting is you can go savoury or sweet. We've never really had that possibility before because people have always had sugar in it." My husband, who up until a few years ago cooked nothing more exotic than a spaghetti bolognese, now swears by it.
As Willie says, "There are people making chocolates, and then there are people who are making chocolate." He falls quite firmly into the latter category, getting up at his home in Tiverton in the summer between 4am and 5am to roast the beans before the processing and conching.
"Conching is the agitation of the chocolate, of the cocoa mass, to get rid of the bitterness, and we don't do it too long. Modern methods do it very quickly, in three hours, and that tends to strip things out, but we do it in an old-fashioned conching machine with granite rollers, which roll back and forth. The chocolate rolls like a wave and slops and curls at the end, and then dribbles out. And that aeration gets rid of the bitterness but it's done very gently, and it retains all the really good stuff in chocolate."
After two television series, endless interest from the tabloids and some very clever marketing, these cylinders turned out to be the surprise hit of last year - Selfridges' best-selling line yet. Just as I was about to despair of ever tasting anything, he whipped out a plastic tub and uttered the joyous words, "I've brought you some Carinero truffles and some rum raisins. I've soaked the raisins in some rum overnight, and I've simply drained away the rum and rolled them by hand."
Could a woman ever have hoped for a more perfect moment? OK, if I'm being picky he could have skied down a mountain and abseiled into my boudoir with a box of them. The cat would have had a scare, granted, and the husband might have stopped snoring, but what the heck! But blow me down, he almost went and spoiled it all by asking if he could have one. You'd have thought he would be sick to death of the stuff.
"I just love it," he enthused. "From the moment I'm roasting the beans I'm tasting them. That's the best way, raw." His wife, Tania, is not quite as frenetic in her appreciation of the brown stuff, particularly since he dug a pit on the lawn of the Devon home to barbecue a lamb. And apparently President Hugo Chavez ordered an investigation into his affairs in Venezuela.
"They pretty much exonerated me," Willie explained. "And I think if you look at my label, you can see that I've called it Venezuelan Black. I've promoted the type of bean, Rio Caribe (or Carinero). It's always been in my best interests not to be accused of being a chocolate company exploiting the country. But I think also that President Chavez discovered that my children were born in Venezuela and I've spent such a long time there."
This man is passionate about chocolate, if you hadn't already guessed. It's a wonder he's as lithe as he is. "I'm allowed to throw about 60 kilo sacks of cocoa myself," he explained. "By the time I've roasted 400 or 500 kilos a day, I've probably moved a couple of tonnes, so it keeps you fit!"
In fact, in his last TV series, he scientifically underlined the health benefits of chocolate with the aid of a researcher at Brunel University, revealing that people who had drunk his chocolate burned off more fat than those who drank another brand.
Willie has just launched his first sweet chocolate: Venezuelan 72 and Peruvian 70. "A connoisseur's chocolate," he calls it, "full of forgotten flavours." He is working on a drinking chocolate, a dark mini-chocolate truffle egg, and at a friend's place in Cullompton he is experimenting on feeding pigs with waste chocolate.
As a final thought in praise of chocolate, I'd just like to add that chocolate stimulates the same reaction in the body as falling in love. It's a darned sight cheaper emotionally - and you don't have to look your best!