There are many who will claim to have an obsession with chocolate, but few who can call it their lifelong passion. Having dedicated his life to the ‘food of the gods’ for 20 years, Willie Harcourt-Cooze is someone who can. His adulation for the humble cacao bean began in 1993 while on holiday in South America, when he stumbled across Hacienda El Tesoro, a cacao farm in the cloud forests of Venezuela. Always one to follow his heart, Willie knew instantly that he had found his purpose. Nowadays, at his Willie’s Cacao chocolate factory in Devon, England, he lovingly crafts some of the world’s most delectable artisan chocolate from 100% pure cacao beans, sourced from the far reaches of the globe – including Hacienda El Tesoro.
When I was about two … my parents went to southern Ireland to buy a holiday house. My father fell so in love with it that he ended up buying a 67-hectare island, called Horse Island, off the west coast. He had a life-changing moment and he got out of London and became a farmer.
We moved to the island … and became self-sufficient. There was no water on it so my father divined for water using a willow stick and we built a well. We grew our own wheat, barley and oats, and we had bees for honey and goats for milk. In those days everything was in abundance, so we would forage for everything. You could go to the beach and every rock had a huge mussel on it and you could shovel a handful of cockles in one go. There’s an excitement in foraging – it’s an adventure that gives you a real adrenaline rush.
One of my greatest memories … is of the island next to ours, called Castle Island. I remember it had football-sized puffball mushrooms that we used to collect and pan-fry, and it was so surreal to me as a child just how big they were. I also vividly remember the time our beehive was knocked over by a tethered goat.
Funnily enough … I loved Willie Wonka as a child – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was one of my favourite books. I still have a tatty old copy of it.
I was a bit of a wild boy … with long hair, who grew up farming and foraging. My father ended up selling the farm, but in a way I had been laying the foundations for what I did later in life. Everything you did was from raw materials – if you wanted to make bread, you milled the wheat – so when I came to make chocolate years later, my mind already thought from the perspective of doing things that way.
When I was 17 … I was mugged on my way home and I was stabbed. That was life-changing for me and made me really reflect on things. I ended up moving to Australia for nine months to work on sheep stations. It was the most amazing time, but my father sadly died during it, so I had to go back to the UK.
I kind of drifted for a while … after that. I started my own decorating business, which earned me enough money to be able to travel. Everybody else was going east to India or Thailand, so I went west instead to South America, which always had more of a mystical ring to it for me. When I came back, I worked as a PA to a television commercial producer and then I got involved in a nightclub in London’s West End, which became so successful that everyone fell out with each other, as often is the case!
It was in the United States … while between jobs, that I met Tania – who I later married. She was at a loose end as well and we decided to go down to South America to Venezuela. We were travelling around in the Andes and we literally just came across the farm at Hacienda El Tesoro.
I realised that … this was my equivalent to Horse Island, but it was better because it was tropical! There was massive abundance that no longer existed elsewhere and you could go fishing and catch anything – stuff that would break your line. The farm had a bank of mango trees beside the house, nutmeg trees on the lawn and ginger growing under the shade of the cacao trees, as well as avocados, papaya, citrus trees … everything. At the time, it was only $100,000, which wasn’t even much in those days and so my business acumen said to me that it was just perfect.
I learned a lot … from the Venezuelan locals about nature and the pace of life. These days I go back once or twice a year, and I’ve recently hatched a plan to make a small factory there and teach the locals how to make chocolate, and have people come and visit and learn all about cacao.
One of the greatest challenges … was building the factory in Devon from scratch. Never having built a factory before, I had to teach myself about drawing a to-scale plan of the factory and then cutting out the to-scale shapes of the machines. It was all trial and error and trying to make sure that I didn’t make mistakes that would be undoable later.
The thing I’m most proud of … is the chocolate itself. It’s better than I ever dreamt of and I’m proud of the fact that I make real chocolate.
There are no shortcuts in making good chocolate … What big chocolate manufacturers do is continuous roasting for an even flavour. I roast in small batches to bring out the particular flavour in each and to tweak them so that they
are absolutely perfect. A lot of people flavour chocolate because their beans don’t have any flavour, whereas I try to find the perfect partner. For example, because the Sierra Leone is a rich, robust African bean, I paired it with ginger and lime. And the Cuban bean has a beautiful honey flavour profile, so I paired it with South African organic essence of orange and they just go perfectly together.
My wisdom for the world … is to eat real chocolate. Cacao was called ‘the food of the gods’ by the Aztecs and I want people to realise why it was called that. It isn’t about the flavour, but rather the effect.
I find peace … when everybody has left the factory and I’m on my own just tinkering. I also have half a mug of hot chocolate there every morning – made with water and a bit of chilli – and I just close my eyes and turn my mind to walking on my farm in the cloud forest in Venezuela. I can find peace by just switching over my thoughts to it.
Do I believe in a god … ? Well, I think everyone believes in something. I’m not sure whether I would define it as god – I’m not sure I’d know what god was, because there seem to be so many. I believe there is something and I believe people need something to believe in. We all pray for something, even if we don’t know who it’s to.
My dream now … is to move my chocolate factory to London, and on top of it build a glass house that would be growing cacao and have a bedroom off it. And I would have a working chocolate factory museum underneath it. Then I would retire in Venezuela and my kids would take over the business and I would just help them by email!
It’s always inspiring … to meet other people who are passionate about what they do. You gain something from talking to them and you get a hotbed of ideas.
I’m a great believer … in following your dreams and thinking big. And I do believe if you get that chance in life to do something you love, you should follow it. I’m motivated by my passion – chocolate inspires me. If you are lucky enough to be captured by your passion, then you are so fortunate.