Sweet life of British 'Willy Wonka' angers Chavez

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The Independent Online

Willie Harcourt-Cooze, an eccentric Devonshire entrepreneur, has spent the past 11 years trying to create the purest bar of chocolate in the world. His bizarre quest, which began with the purchase of 1,000 acres of land in Venezuela on which he planted 10,000 cacao trees, has since won him a £500,000 deal with the supermarket chain Waitrose and has seen him dubbed the "British Willy Wonka" on a Channel 4 documentary television series following his travails.

But Mr Harcourt-Cooze, who has boasted that his South American plantation produces "the finest, rarest and most expensive cacao in the world", has now seen his success turn sour after discovering that the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, has ordered an investigation into his export business.

Mr Chavez – who has been described as a fairly eccentric man himself – has accused Mr Harcourt-Cooze on Venezuelan television of refusing to pay fair prices for his cacao, the chief ingredient in chocolate. The socialist leader, who was speaking on his weekly programme, Hello President, also suggested the farmer was exploiting local workers.

Mr Chavez told his agriculture and defence ministers: "Find out who this William Harcourt-Cooze is and how many hectares he has. The production and distribution is done from his factory in Devon, England, and this gentleman is getting rich. We cannot continue exporting cacao; we have to process it, industrialise it." Mr Chavez believes that any cacao produced in his country should be turned into gourmet chocolate by local companies and workers' co-operatives. Nationalisations and expropriations are not uncommon in Venezuela.

The British entrepreneur's chocolate business, which formed the basis for the Channel 4 programme Willie's Wonky Chocolate Factory, struggled initially, but has been helped by increased publicity. Bars of "Venezuelan Black", which are produced by hand at his factory, are now in such demand that they currently sell for £7 each in the upmarket department shop Selfridges, an amount of money that some Venezuelans would be grateful to earn in a day.

Mr Harcourt-Cooze revealed that his chocolate's success is based entirely on the purity of the cacao produced by trees on his estate, El Tesoro, which is located in the mountains not far from the north coast of Venezuela, near the beach resort of Choroni. The product has already won plaudits from several top chefs, including Marco Pierre-White, who regularly orders batches to use at his Yew Tree Inn at Highclere near London.

The chocolate maker has said his aim was never to become a millionaire. His wife, Tania, said that when the family moved to Venezuela, they didn't plan to go into chocolate production.

She said: "We began by setting up some tourism: a small hotel, a restaurant and walks through the national park. We also farmed everything that grew on the land It just happened that the cocoa was exceptional."