Saturday, March 1, 2008
Willie's Wonky Chocolate Factory brings Venezuelan cacao to UK
New Channel 4 Series: "Raising the Bar: Willie's Chocolate Revolution"
A new four-part Channel 4 series called "Willie's Wonky Chocolate Factory" aims to introduce the UK to premium Venezuelan cacao. The programme follows William "Willie" Harcourt-Cooze, who bought an old hacienda near Choroni about 12 years ago, as he takes viewers on a trip from the lush forests of his cacao plantation in the Henri Pittier National Park to Devon, where he is trying to market his Venezuelan Black cacao bars.
There's something a bit Monty Python about Willie Harcourt-Cooze. Perhaps its his upper class accent, or the fact he's tall and a bit gangly. Maybe it's the unquenchable enthusiasm with which he leaps into his latest obsessions, or the hit and miss results of his endeavours.
But if Willie looks a bit like a Michael Palin character from Ripping Yarns, there's no denying that his larger-than-life character is TV gold.
It was an inspired decision by Channel 4 to give him, his wife and their three kids their own reality series. The result is like something between "the Filthy Fulfords" and orchid hunter Tom Hart-Dyke's attempts to save Lullingford castle.
The premise is fairly similar too. About 12 years ago Willie and his wife Tania bought a run-down hacienda on the edge of the Henri Pitter National Park in Venezuela's Aragua State. A glorious place between the cloud forest peaks of the park and the popular beach-resort-cum-fishing-village of Choroni, it is reached by fording a river close to the windy road that wends its way down to the sea.
After several false starts and stalled projects to reactivate the hacienda they finally hit on the idea of planting cacao trees, which produce the cocoa beans that chocolate is made from.
Living just a valley away from the isolated plantation of Chuao, they very cleverly chose to plant the same strain of criollo cacao that grows in Chuao, which is considered among the finest cacao in the world.
Now, despite setbacks in Venezuela, including an eco-posada project that never really got off the ground, Willie's Venezuelan Black chocolate venture in the UK is going quite well. The 100 per cent cacao bars went on sale in Selfridges in London on 18 February and Willie says he took £700 on the first day. He's been supplying chocolate to his mate Marco Pierre-White, one of London's top chefs, who has been experimenting with it in a number of recipes.
The three bars in the “Venezuelan Black” range are: Carenero Superior, Rio Caribe Superior and El Tesoro.
Carenero and Rio Caribe are named after the cacao beans used to make them, while El Tesoro (Treasure) is the name of Willie's hacienda and contains 100 per cent Chuao cacao.
Thinking big, Willie is hoping to become one of the first Britons since Cadbury to grow and produce his own chocolate from bean to bar.
The four-part documentary on Channel 4 certainly won't hurt sales.
It's been quite a journey. I first met Willie and his wife Tania when they were living on the beach in Choroni. Back then they were trying to buy El Tesoro and some of the locals thought they were just another pair of posh hippies passing through, trying to live the South American dream.
Later, I visited the hacienda and was blown away by the sheer size of the place, a thousand acres that stretched from a river near the road all the way to the high valley wall that leads over the hills to Chuao.
Willie had gained a reputation as a bit of a gentleman farmer with his shotgun and his hunting dogs and his more eccentric ideas of how to make the hacienda pay. Tania, or the Honourable Tania harcourt-Cooze, to give her full title, seemed to be the sensible one, but then she was pregnant in Choroni, so sensible was probably good.
Tania's background is almost as fascinating as Willie's. Her father is the fifth Baron Coleridge and she is a direct relative of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Lake Poet who penned Xanadu. She tried her hand at modelling and acting in Los Angeles in her twenties before marrying Willie and travelling to Venezuela.
At the height of her modelling career she appeared as the eye candy alongside George Michael in the 1988 video for his song "Father Figure" (just Youtube George Michael father Figure to see it).
Back in the mid-90s the plan was to set up an eco-posada and bring over high-end travellers who wanted to experience some the amazing plant and bird life of the National Park as well as the beautiful local beaches.
But incorporating the local tradition of cacao production and the internationally-recognized excellence of Chuao's criollo cacao beans into that mix is Willie's master stroke.
A few years ago, the economic downturn in Venezuela made things a bit tough for them on the hacienda. Tania's Coleridge connection brought the couple and their three children back to Devon, to The Chanters House, the Coleridge family's twenty bedroom estate in Ottery St Mary.
From there Willie was able to start buying the equipment he needed to process the beans into high quality chocolat, the basic ingredient in chocolate bars, cakes and hot chocolate, after sugar and milk are added.
So things are looking look good for Willie and Tania. From the amount of publicity the Channel 4 documentary is generating the business should do well and hopefully spark more interest in Venezuela and its natural treasures.
Meanwhile, I just can't wait to get my hands on some real Venezuelan chocolate in London.
Click here to see Willie's new Chocolate Factory Cookbook
Chuao: In Search of World's Finest Cocoa Beans
Choroni: Tambores, guarapita and midnight dips
Video: Drum dancing in Chuao
My Blog about Venezuelan Food and Drinks