With Easter just around the corner and our new year's resolutions all but forgotten, the nation is gearing up for its annual chocolate fest. But as the supermarket shelves are stacked with mountains of high sugar, high fat chocolate treats, one man is urging you to aim higher – champion of real chocolate, Willie Harcourt-Cooze.
We were there for the setting up of Willie's Wonky Chocolate Factory and for Willie's Chocolate Revolution as he set out to produce the purest chocolate bars in the world and to show us confectionery-loving Brits what real chocolate is all about.
The delectable (think that magical Willy Wonka-style glint of gold from within the super-stylish 2-bar box) real chocolate bars are now here, so what next for the charismatic chocolate man, who grates 100 cacao, which now accounts for 35 is really used as an ingredient in cooking and that wasn't something that people have been used to.
Sales are good I think because the product is real, you know – it's real chocolate – it's pure. It ticks a lot of boxes for a lot of people. It's better for you and with the pure product you're in control – you can use however much you want, you can add to it – in a way you're the maker.
You've now fulfilled your dream of creating your own chocolate bars - which are your best sellers?
It's really strange, but they all sell the same. No idea why, but that's just how it seems to work out. We recently introduced a Madagascan chocolate – which is quite jumpy with fruity flavours and that's now also selling just the same as all the others.
Do your kids ever eat anything other than your chocolate? Would they ever want or dare ask for, say, a creme egg?
Well my 12-year-old has pretty much grown out of the sweet stuff now. My 7-year-old likes the creamier milkier stuff, but it's really the sugar you have to watch where the kids are concerned.
I've actually just been experimenting with making a fruit and nut bar, with pecans and cranberry and the kids love that. Sometimes I think a whole bar of the pure chocolate might be too much for them, but when it's got fruit and nuts, they tend to want to eat more of it.
It's been 14 years since you bought the cocoa farm in Venezuela that started the whole chocolate journey. But before all that, were you always a foodie?
Yes, I've always been involved with food. I've always been someone who cooks for friends and for the family at weekends, but I think most of my connection to food comes from my childhood.
[Willie spent most of his childhood living in rural Ireland where his parents farmed and lived a self-sufficient life.]
For me, if we made bread, we grew the wheat for the flour, I made elderflower wine (that went fizzy so it was actually more like champagne...) – my sisters and I were foragers. If we weren't out mushroom-picking we would be waiting for the tide to go out and collecting whatever was left exposed.
It's always been about the ingredients – and that's where I'm back to today.
You've travelled the world - which cuisines would you say are your favourites?
I'm into strong flavours. And I've always been an ardent fisherman – no fancy rods or anything, just handlining off the rocks, and when I spent time in Thailand, I did a lot of fishing and then handed the fish over to the locals for cooking.
They used a lot of ginger – everything was done on a burner – everything. There was delicate steamed fish but lots of spicing – that's got to be my favourite kind of food.
And years later, in Venezuela, there's lots of ginger growing in the shade of the cacao trees on the farm, so it all ties in - a little bit of the East has been brought over.
I do remember unconventional things like my dad putting oranges with salt, which was specific to his heritage, but mostly I think the food we ate growing up was a product of where we were – by the sea in Ireland. There was lots of sea trout, it was all great simple stuff.
What's the best meal you've ever eaten and where did you eat it?
It was on the farm in Venezuela. I call it 'Junky pig' and there's a story behind it.
I've always loved marinating meat and the outside always tastes amazing, but the flavour often doesn't make it through to the inside. So, as we had pigs on the farm and also about 70 mango trees, we always used to make sure that the baby pigs ate all of the waste mango – it made the meat really tender. There were also trees on the farm that produced beans – like a big broad bean - and we used those as feed for the pigs too and it made the meat taste amazing.
There was one pig, which sadly took to eating her young, so we ate her. That sounds awful doesn't it?! I made a marinade with white wine, ginger, chocolate and I filtered the marinade and then injected the meat, so the flavour really got inside and it tasted amazing. That was the best meal I've ever had – for the amazing food, but also because of where it was, on the farm, with all the people I worked with.
And it was a celebration – a big barbeque on the patio – a real celebration of the animal.
Is there anything you would never eat?
I'm not keen on tripe.
You use chocolate in savoury recipes as well as sweet. For anyone who has never tried chocolate in a savoury dish before, which one should they try first?
There's one great easy thing that isn't in either of my books, but it's how I like to start my day. Fry a couple of eggs in a little chilli oil (I use duck eggs) and grate a little 100 chocolate, roughly chopped
300g Indonesian Javan Light Breaking 69 Cacaos and dark chocolate bars and to learn more about the real chocolate revolution, go to www.williescacao.com
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