From the moment the London-born chef, TV host and chocolatier Willie Harcourt-Cooze stepped foot in the Venezuelan Andes in 1993, he was home. Lured by the prospect of an adventure in exotic delicacies, Willie found himself in the cloud forest of Venezuela sipping on a hot chocolate that would change his life.
“From that moment, I was determined to discover more about cacao,” says Willie. “This was the moment that has brought me to where I am now, travelling the world introducing people to real chocolate.”
Fast forward three years and Willie purchased the thousand-acre hacienda that was home to the El Tesoro beans – and that transformative hot chocolate. He treasures his time spent on the farm, harvesting cacao beans for his range of 100% cacao products, Willie’s Cacao and travelling the world in search of undiscovered varieties and new flavours.
“[At the time] everyone was telling me I was mad,” reveals Willie. “Who would invest everything they had, or didn’t have, in making 100% cacao, which most people had never even heard of?”
But with multiple cook books, TV shows and even a chocolate factory to his (curiously appropriate) name, Willie’s venture into the wonderful world of chocolate has paid off.
“There’s no doubt I’m lucky. Let’s take this month, I am just back from doing a chocolate tasting with wine growers in Burgundy and a trade show in Paris. Now, I am off to Peru and Colombia to go to new co-operatives and look for beans,” says Willie.
“I love the flavours, the salt of the earth people I meet and the wonderful variety – it’s a constant journey of discovery.”
We recently caught up with Willie to discuss the hidden powers of the “Food of the Gods” and what real chocolate tastes like ahead of his upcoming visit to our shores to celebrate the recent launch of Willie’s Cacao in Australia, available now in Coles supermarkets nationally.
Can you pinpoint the moment you decided to become a chocolatier?
It was my first miraculous, mind blowing taste of hot chocolate made from my El Tesoro beans from my cacao farm in Venezuela. This was in 1993. It was simply the cacao liquor, heated with water and a touch of honey. I had never tasted anything like it, such delicious and distinct flavours, quite unlike any chocolate I had known up to that point. I was also struck by an extraordinary physical feeling of energy and wellbeing. It was unbelievable.
What education have you had in the field of chocolate?
I grew up as part of a large family on Horse Island off Southern Ireland living a virtually self-sufficient existence. This gave me the feeling for making things from the raw ingredient, so it was natural for me to want to make chocolate from the bean.
But it was living on El Tesoro, my cacao farm in Venezuela, growing cacao and experimenting, that I had my real chocolate education. I learned to differentiate between all the different types of cacao on my journeys around Venezuela, when I was sourcing varieties of cacao to replant my hacienda. As time went on, I was immediately able to know if I was tasting a bean with merit.
What is your purpose in bringing the public’s attention to 100% Cacao products?
I am honestly worried that people have forgotten what real chocolate is. What passes for chocolate now bears little resemblance to [the ancient form of] cacao, whose flavours were so deep and properties so life enhancing that it was called ‘Food of the Gods’ and revered for centuries. Now, chocolate has mainly become a vehicle for feeding the world’s sugar addiction. It is a powerful enricher of savoury food, not just the basis for great cakes.
How does your chocolate compare to other more commercial varieties?
My chocolate is simply cacao, raw cane sugar and a little natural cocoa butter. My aim as the chocolate maker is to simply help each bean develop and show its unique flavour as completely as possible. You could say it’s a celebration of cacao.
The most basic commercial chocolate consists of milk, white and dark. Then there are some more premium brands who sell by the % of cacao, such as 60%, 70% or 80%. These chocolates are usually a blend of more commercial beans with a few premium beans to add flavour. But in the end, they don’t have a particularly interesting taste coming from the cacao which is why you typically find vanilla included in them. For me, vanilla is the devil! In fact, if a chocolate is made using interesting beans, you wouldn’t be adding vanilla as this just covers up the more subtle flavour notes of the beans.
How have you been able to reduce the price of such high quality chocolate? Even making it affordable for Coles?
My whole purpose is to try to introduce as many people as possible to real chocolate. I want everyone to have the awakening I did. So I do everything I can to keep the costs down. The main way is by buying the beans direct from the farmers, and I make absolutely everything myself – even the caramel in the Black Pearls – and when we are expanding the factory we do it bit by bit ourselves, rather than getting in expensive contractors. You know that old saying, ‘if you look after the pennies, the pounds look after themselves!’
You collect beans from some very exotic and far-away places, how do you discover these places?
I follow every tangent and lead, and follow up on every conversation because you never know where it will lead. I once met a Colombian girl at trade fair in London whose father was a potato farmer, so she knows the world of the farming co-operatives. She has networked her way around Colombia, and now through her I am connected with all the co-operatives.
How do Cacao beans differ from region to region? What makes them different?
Cacao really is like fine wine, each bean has its distinctly different character. Over the years, I have been blown away by the different tastes and aromas that I have come across.
The genetics of the plant come first, but after that, more flavour notes are added by soil and climate. The final character of the chocolate is then determined by the post-harvest fermentation and drying, and most importantly by the talent and style of the chocolatier.
You talk about the ‘life-giving’ properties of chocolate, can you explain these?
Cacao is packed full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and polyphenols. It stimulates feel-good endorphins, contains flavonoids, which are a powerful antioxidant, and serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressant. Studies have even suggested that dark chocolate may lower blood pressure.
Still, I think that modern science is just scratching the surface of understanding cacao’s properties and effects. Next time you are in need of a real pick me up, go straight past the coffee … head for the cacao!
Do you have a favourite type of chocolate or chocolate recipe?
My cacaos are like my children, I love them all. I have my moods and moments for each one.
Get your very own signed copy of Willie’s Chocolate Bible in our online shop on sale now, but only while stocks last!
Willie Harcourt-Cooze will be hosting a special chocolate tasting in Sydney and Melbourne as part of his upcoming visit to Australia. Find out more from this adventuring artisan chocolatier on Thursday 13 November, 12pm-2pm at Coles Bondi Westfield New South Wales and Friday 21 November, 12pm-2pm at Coles Southland, Victoria.