Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of doing something I have wanted to do since I first heard it existed: I visited Willie Harcourt-Cooze’s Chocolate Factory in Devon. Yep, that’s right, Willie’s Wonky Chocolate Factory. The factory isn’t open to the public so I was extremely privileged to be shown through the entire chocolate making process by Willie himself and then get involved in some of his chocolate experiments in the kitchen, too.
I first met Willie when he was filming the first series of his TV show, in 2008. I was one of the Seventypercent.com club that were asked to be the ‘chocolate experts’ to taste his chocolate and his Chocolate Cloud cake. The show is syndicated around the world and I have random friends and relatives, including my sister-in-law, who have at various times over the last few years emailed me to tell me how shocked they were to turn on the TV and see me. Less shocked, of course, to see that I was eating chocolate.
So, for those of you interested in the behind the scenes making of chocolate – because Willie’s factory isn’t open to the public - I thought I would share with you a quick insight into the factory in pictures:
Willie has two storage rooms for the beans: the main one, piled high with hessian sacks, and then a smaller room directly next to the factory. The sacks have a little hole in each to reach in and take a bean to sample it. You can already tell the hint towards what flavour notes you are going to get from the chocolate by trying the bean. We tasted some from Peru, Indonesia and Venezuela. By far the most interesting to me were the Venezuelan Rio Caraibe beans, full and flavoursome, both fruity and deep, ‘like a red wine’, according to Willie. It’s quite incredible how the beans from different areas can look and taste so different, some being a deep reddish, almost-black, and others a creamy, pale red-brown.
This is an old nut roaster, quite similar to the one used by Mott of the Grenada Chocolate Company. When Willie first bought this quite a few of the parts were missing, but not to be derailed, he built them himself. Some have since been replaced as the supplier located some of them eventually. I’m glad I went to visit in Winter because the roaster quickly warmed the room to a lovely temperature.
The de-sheller (winnower), again similar to the one I saw at Mott’s, just a little larger. If you’ve not seen one before it’s quite a clever system, where rather than blowing the shells away, hairdryer-style, the beans are shaken along a mesh conveyor (quite violently in order to loosen them from their shells). The beans break into smaller pieces (nibs) and fall through the gaps in the mesh that get smaller and smaller and get conveyored along to the end where they fall in a bucket ready for the next stage. The shells also fall through but a suction of air (vacuum-style) is perfectly engineered with enough strength to only suck away the lighter shells. Some shell will always make it into the mix, but that’s ok. In Willie’s book he mentioned how the researchers of Rowntree’s once made a bar of chocolate just from the shells that wasn’t actually too bad. Willie had a go himself but didn’t think it helped the taste.
Now depending on whether the beans are going to make Willie’s famous 100% Cacao cylinders of into his newer, sweeter bars, the next step is different.
The 100% cylinders are made by first grinding the beans and then putting into an old-style concher (the one I’m sitting on up there!). Though Willie has newer Lloveras conching machines (that he uses for his sweet chocolate) he won’t switch from the traditional, centuries old grinding and conching methods for his full-strength cylinders because ‘you just wouldn’t get the same flavour’. I tasted some of the liquor from each type of machine, intense stuff, though I couldn’t tell you what effect the machines had seeing as it was different beans in each machine. Some of the liquors are conched for more than ten days. The old-style machine is fantastic for really seeing how the machines got their name, the curved nature of the barrel that the chocolate sits in causes waves of chocolate as the internal barrel rolls back and forth, agitating the chocolate. All of this helps to release the acidity and any harsh notes from the chocolate, as well as getting it smooth so it melts deliciously in your mouth.
First the chocolate liquor is conched, then the sugar is added and it’s conched some more, and finally extra cocoa butter to help get the right level of fluidity that will ensure a delicious, perfectly balanced bar of chocolate.
From the conching machines the chocolate goes into a holding tank to be tempered and then into the moulds to be passed through the cooling tunnel to set and then wrapped and packed at the end.
So many pieces of machinery! You can’t lightly decide to get into chocolate manufacturing! Especially that all of this machinery also requires some level of skill in knowing when things are ‘ready’, from the roasting to the conching, it’s very much a hands-on process in need of an expert touch to produce great tasting and great looking chocolate bars.
In the afternoon I got to mess about in the test kitchen melting chocolate bars and experimenting. I can think of few better ways to spend an afternoon, creating and tasting new chocolates.
The first television series followed Willie’s venture into building the factory and making his 100% cacao cylinders, breaking ground in the UK market for chocolate, the second into his foray into sweet bars which now outsell the cylinders. There’s no confirmation on a third series that I’m aware of, but with the amount of chocolate-fuelled ideas that Willie has whirring I can see there’s more than scope for another, so watch your screens!
** A big thanks to Willie who welcomed me to his factory and shared so much of his chocolate and cocoa knowledge (and actual cocoa and chocolate!) with me.