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Cult TV star Willie Harcout-Cooze goes in search of Britain's best Easter eggs

Hermione Eyre meets the eccentric entrepreneur whose scheme to make 'the best chocolate in the world' has become cult television viewing. Plus, we invite Willie Harcourt-Cooze (and family) to taste-test the Easter offerings of Britain's leading chocolatiers...

Easter means chocolate, even though it's afundamentally pagan foodstuff. "It's a drug. No doubt about it," says Willie Harcourt-Cooze, a man who is guilty of growing, processing and supplying to Selfridges Food Hall, spearheading the evolution of British chocolate from sickly to stimulating. "The theobromine in chocolate gives you a euphoric pick-me-up, like caffeine but without the edge. I mean, in Mexico in the 16th century, when they tried to ban the nuns from drinking it, someone killed the bishop! Only drug addicts do stuff like that, don't they?"

Willie Harcourt-Cooze is a real-life Willy Wonka. Tall, dark, charismatic and unpredictable, he owns a cacao-bean estate in Venezuela and has, recently, been struggling to establish his own chocolate factory in Devon, a chaotic process that has been captured by Channel 4 for the programme Willie's Wonky Chocolate Factory. If you've been watching, you'll have seen Willie and his small helpers (his children, natch, not Oompa-Loompas) operating huge gleaming roasting and grinding machines, losing axles off their continental conching tanks and heading off in the middle of the night to collect tempering machines that come with no instructions... "I don't think the programme has caught half the jeopardy I've been in," he says, alarmingly. "I'm winging it, really."

But there's method in his madness. Willie's mission is to deliver a first to the UK chocolate market: a bar that is 100 per cent cacao. It would be "a niche product", he admits, mainly for chefs and connoisseurs to use while cooking, but the concept speaks to the increasingly sophisticated British consumer, who is fed up with anodyne, diluted confectionery and interested in getting back to the basic potency of the source material. "We're going through a chocolate awakening," says Willie. "It's similar to what happened with olive oil in the 1990s, only it's taken us a bit longer with chocolate – I can't think why." '

Most chocolate worldwide is produced from the hardy but inferior forastero bean, but Willie's Venezuelan Black comes from the highly prized criollo bean, and is grown without pesticides in the cloud forests of his Hacienda el Tesoro. Already a far cry from your cornershop offerings, Willie's product range offers another level of discrimination: a choice between two types of single-bean bars. There's the Venezuelan Black Rio Caribe Superior (with a nutty flavour) and Venezuelan Black Carenero Superior (with citrus characteristics).

It seems beans means... different taste profiles.

But do you have to have a particularly good palate to tell them apart? "With my beans, the different flavours jump right out at you. I lift the hood on the conching machines in my factory and people are amazed." When Willie visited top chocolatier William Curley (right, who has never yet made a Wurly, sadly) he did a small, off-camera taste test. "Curley gave me a slab and said you'll never guess what this is...'Madagascan!' I said, 'mixed with Venezuelan.' I got it not because I'm especially clever, I just know the market."

That said, Willie's taste is pretty well-developed. He grew up "drinking Mouton Cadet from the 1940s" after his father bought up a rare wine lot in Ireland, where Willie grew up. His first memory is visiting a health-food store with his mother, who was "a brown-bread nut". When Willie bought his hacienda in Venezuela 10 years ago, he discovered the use of chocolate in savoury cooking. "And I just exploded! Chicken chocolate mole, cacao and cod, chocolate in gravy and soups and sauces... It's got unlimited potential.

"So together with the lovely guys who work on my estate, we made up loads of recipes." Some of which he demonstrates on his Channel 4 show, filmed on the terrace of his hacienda, like a sort of Nostromo meets Gordon Ramsay. Willie warns against the tell-tale taste of newsagent chocolate. "There's just something about it – perhaps it's the taste of added animal fat? It's a flavour that you get across the board in inferior chocolate from many brands. If it's good chocolate, it won't have it. It will taste distinctively like itself."

This Sunday, the Harcourt-Cooze children, William, Eve and Sophia, will be eating eggs that they have made themselves, from beans from bushes they have toddled under. Young William has helped "check quality control" of the processing pipes along the way. There couldn't be a more choco-centric family.

Tania, Willie's long-suffering spouse, prefers the drinkable variety: spicy and bitter. "She says it suppresses the appetite – although chocolate doesn't make you fat if it's any good," says Willie. "It has the right fats, healthy fats. And it's a wonderful stimulant.

"Hernándo Cortéz, the man who brought chocolate back from Mexico in the 1500s, was a military man and he was very excited about liquid chocolate because he said it could make a soldier march all day. And it powers us all day and night running this factory, too." In spite of his labour of love, The New Review persuaded Willie to take a brief pause from getting high on his own supply to test the wares of five of the best of the new breed of British chocolatier. Warning: the results may produce rampant cocoa cravings.

'Willie's Wonky Chocolate Factory' ends tonight on Channel 4

I should cocoa: Five heavyweight chocolatiers stake their claim to sweet-toothed supremacy

The artiste: William Curley, patissier and chocolatier

In the past few years, chocolate has undergone something of a revolution and hopefully we've been partially behind that. This is my house egg – it's made of high-quality dark Amadei chocolate and is filled with matching house truffles. We try to keep the look clean and sharp; hand-made needn't mean rustic.

I'd describe the brand as contemporary, with classical roots. I spent 18 years as a traditional French-trained patisserie chef – which is how most chocolatiers start – but I'm now inspired by Japan, which gives us a unique angle. I think that's where the best food is coming from these days as they have taken European expertise and been innovative with it.

At the moment we're using ingredients such as toasted sesame, black vinegar and Japanese citrus fruit, but we started gently with things such as mint. Our customers have come with us on a kind of journey. It's about educating people about chocolate in the same way that people have been educated about wine. Trying our chocolates for the first time is the equivalent of drinking a bottle of Petrus after years of plonk.


Willie's verdict: William Curley has worked with Michelin-starred chefs and those guys are into excellence, you know? In his chocolate I can taste the provenance of the beans.

The intellectual: Keith Hurdman, Melt

I'm not interested in weird flavours such as pickled onions – it might get you some press but I think those chocolatiers are misguided.

After 23 years of training and working in Switzerland, my philosophy is "what grows together, goes together", so I concentrate on natural ingredients that you find near a cocoa plantation, such as mango and banana.

That doesn't mean our chocolates aren't interesting. In London, the French-style is dominant but I like to mix it with Belgian and Swiss techniques. It's so boring going into a shop full of uniform chocolates.

Of course, the main priority has to be taste and in that respect we offer something for everyone. This egg is a case in point – Easter is a family occasion so I created a dark outer shell for adults and a white egg inside for children.

Our chocolate contains no preservatives so customers should enjoy it immediately.


Willie's verdict: What Melt does is exceptional and delicious, but the price of freshness is that some of its ganaches and creams won't last longer than a week.

The pioneer: Chantal Cody, Rococo Chocolates

Chocolate needs to be made with love. Our eggs are hand-painted and people often say they are too beautiful to eat, but we put as much into the taste as we do the design. We've just celebrated our 25th anniversary and we were experimenting with flavours such as chilli and basil long before it became the big thing.

We've seen an enormous shift in consumers' attitudes; people have a far greater appreciation these days, although there is still this myth that it is all about the cocoa percentage, which is like buying wine by the proof.

We've recently acquired a joint venture in Grenada where we have 10 acres of organic cocoa farm. It will be the first carbon-neutral chocolate factory in the world. It will also give us a deeper involvement in the chocolate-making process.


Willie's verdict: Chantal's presentation is beautiful. There aren't many good milks on the market but hers are great. Lovely for children.

The fashionista: Paul A Young, Paul.A.Young Fine Chocolates

People come to us precisely because our style of chocolate-making is very different – you won't see anything else like it. It's visually bold. We don't do anything obvious, such as putting pictures of a bunny on an Easter egg.

I look for inspiration everywhere, which means we react very quickly to trends and keep a close eye on things such as colours on the catwalks at Paris Fashion Week. I think that shows that our chocolate is about a type of lifestyle; it's about people wanting a premium, designer product.

As a chocolatier, you don't usually make the chocolate yourself. Instead, we get all ours from manufacturers such as Valrhona and Amadei and then create products using our blends, flavours and textures. Our ingredients are seasonal and creative, so customers find something different every time they come in to the shop.

Our chocolates are hand-made from start to finish, there is no machinery involved whatsoever. It's an absolutely pure process.


Willie's verdict: This is a different approach. Not quite comedy chocolate but certainly something to push your tastebuds. I love these guys who bring something new to the table.

The purist: Gerard Coleman, L'Artisan du Chocolat

Of all the chocolatiers mentioned here, I believe that my company, L'Artisan du Chocolat, is the only company that actually manufactures all of its own chocolate. Most buy it from the big European houses, such as Valrhona, before melting the chocolate down and repackaging it. I actually spent a year working at Rococo but there was quite a lot of this repacking going on there, so I made the decision that I was better off doing my own thing.

The chocolate we made for this ribboned egg is a single-bean, single-estate chocolate from the Dominican Republic. The best chocolate is uncomplicated, allowing the quality of the beans to come through.

Cocoa from a particular estate will have one or two taste profiles – in Java it might be smoky in flavour, whereas in Madagascar it will be fruitier – and we try to capture those characteristics, to be true to the flavour that made the cocoa remarkable in the first place.

We may match the beans with a nut, spice or fruit to see what works, but we keep it simple. A lot of people mix up elaborate concoctions that have a blend of cocoa beans mixed with several other flavours, but why bother if you can't taste the chocolate itself?

In keeping with this ethos, we also try to keep the presentation sober and understated so the quality of the experience is about the taste, not the decoration.


Willie's verdict: Subtle, smooth and well-flavoured – and you can tell by the texture and quality that L'Artisan makes its chocolate by hand, on-site in its own kitchen. That makes a massive difference.