Can you smell the sweetness in the morning air? No? Maybe it’s just me surrounded by delicious & delectable chocolate from Willie’s Cacao!
I’m very proud to say that since March 2014 I have been working with Willie’s Cacao to pair their lovely chocolate with a selection of cheeses ready for their new website. Now before I share some of the pairings (I don’t want to ruin the surprise for the new website!) I want to give you a history of Willie’s Cacao, a very sweet success story.
It all started when Willie Harcourt-Cooze (Owner of Willie’s Cacao) took a honeymoon to Venezuela in 1993 where he discovered a farm called Hacienda El Tesoro. Having fallen in love with the farm at first sight, as soon as he got back to London he planned to purchase the farm and emigrate to start his new venture. Realising his dream, he planted 10,000 cacao plants so that the 1000 acre farm accounts for 3% of the world’s flora and 7% of the world’s bird species. The farm produces the Criollo cacao bean which produces some of the world’s finest chocolate and is the rarest and most prized cacao bean of them all. The plantation has never been touched by any pesticides, chemicals or fertiliser and gains its vitality from the irrigated water from the mountains nearby.
When harvesting the beans Willie comments that “One of the wonders of the world is walking through shafts of sunlight past the trees with the multi-coloured pods jutting straight from the trunk and lower branches. It’s like magic twice a year. The cacao pods take five months to grow from the blossom bud to ripe fruit. We harvest the trees twice a year, in November (November being the most principle crop after the rainy season) and July, when the pods are at their absolute peak of ripeness. This has to be done by hand, with machetes, taking great care not to damage the budding new flowers or cut the bean because once it dries it will break up. There are about 30-40 beans in each pod and each ones weighs about a gram when fermented and dried.” Now this sounds like an absolutely beautiful surrounding but the work that goes in at this stage is certainly hard & hot work.
The next stage, fermentation, is crucial to the taste of cacao. Without fermentation, the beans won’t develop a chocolate flavour, getting it wrong you could ruin a harvest! Having placed the beans in hardwood boxes, covered in banana leaves they are turned twice a day to ensure that air reaches them. After time the contents of the box become a pulp and starts leaking juices. A natural chemical reaction occurs inside the beans as they are in contact with Oxygen which not only results in a rise in temperature to approximately 52℃, but also allows the beans to produce a very strong aroma. The Criollo bean only takes a few days to ferment whereas other varieties can take up to six days and to this day the traditional method of fermenting is still the best.
The last process is to dry the beans which isn’t as difficult as fermenting but requires attention to detail. After around 120 hours of fermentation, the beans are placed in the sun, first for a gentle dry, an hour in the morning and afternoon, at this stage the beans need to be turned constantly. The beans are then sat in the sun longer and longer by the day, this continues until the beans are dry and they are dried over the course of a week. The method that Willie’s farm uses is to check if a bean is ready is to weigh the beans when they are completely dry and to put them out in the sun and weigh them again afterwards. Once they weigh the same they are done! A bean that’s too moist won’t keep, and a bean that’s too dry will break up. If you have loads of little bean pieces in a roaster it means they can easily burn!
Once they are dried, they are shipped to Uffculme in Devon to be turned into delicious chocolate. When the beans arrive in their hessian sack they are checked and stored in a climate-controlled room at between 14 and 16 degrees. Through the whole process, Willie’s Cacao concentrates on flavours and the use of old original machines captures unique flavours that new modern machines simply cannot. It takes time but good things come to those who wait! Roasting ensures the beans gain a rich flavour and is the next most important stage in developing the flavour & aroma. Willie’s Cacao beans are of such a high quality that they can be roasted in 60 kilo batches for 20-30 minutes. The ball roasting machine used is almost a hundred years old and comes from Bilbao, Spain. It gains its name from the ball shape it has and which it is believed gives a better roast than other shapes as the hot air circulates inside the ball.
The next stage is to blow the shell away which leaves the cacao nibs (The edible bit). If too much shell is left in the chocolate it will affect its flavour. Approximately half of each cacao nib is cocoa butter and this is essential for fine cacao and chocolate, giving a rich, deep, smooth taste. The nibs are ground and the rollers on the machine catch the smooth cacao liquid, draw it up and refine it so that it runs smoothly off into containers. The liquid is then cooled and is ready for conching.
The art of conching is essential to chocolate making and helps remove bitterness and it also brings out the lovely flavours of the cacao. Again the conching tanks are 100 years old and Willie’s have four tanks and the granite rollers in each tank weigh 150 kilos. They roll back and forth for eight to 12 hours to help refine it further. To make Willie’s Delectable chocolate bars they use only Barbados raw cane sugar and a little cacao butter, following Willie Harcourt-Cooze’s own recipe.
Willie decided to add a little modern chocolate making by adding a tempering machine which warms and cools the cacao mass so that the butter & solids set together perfectly, before being placed into the mould. Tempering also stops the white bloom that you get on the chocolate sometimes. The chocolate then dispenses into a depositor, which deposits exactly the right amount of chocolate into each mould. The chocolate needs to be cooled quickly so it passes through a cooling tunnel, which shrinks it and allows it to come out of its mould easily. It is then wrapped.
Willie notes that “A piece of spare pipe on the Hacienda has proved my accidental hero and shaped the 100 cacao bar into a cylinder. When I couldn’t decide what to use as a mould for my earliest batches of cacao, I noticed a length of the pipe the floor of my workshop. I chopped up all I had into moulds and it worked beautifully, I kept the shape when I started making it in Devon and it rolls out of the factory better. It’s great for grating and keeps better because it has a lot less surface area than a flat bar.” The bars are hand wrapped in gold foil and in all it takes only three weeks from harvesting to wrapping.
This brings us to today where with an ever expanding product range this chocolate is increasing with popularity and is used by chefs in homes & businesses across the UK & World. Having watched Willie on TV I was taken aback by his tireless dedication & passion to his chocolate and the team that is behind him. So when I met him at the Food & Drink Expo 2014 I was thrilled at the prospect that I may actually be able to work with Willie’s Cacao. I have been in contact with Bianca at Willie’s and was sent a selection of chocolates to pair with cheese, tricky but not impossible! The reason being that they wish to redevelop their website and include some more unusual pairings for their chocolate on which I was delighted to advise them.
I was given four different chocolates to pair :
- Apple & Brandy black pearls
- Cuban Baracoa 65 Ginger & Lime
- Peruvian Gold 70
- Rio Caribe 44 Sea Flakes
I will include the first two for you to read but you will have to wait for the new website to read about the last two!
Apple & Brandy black pearls (Serving Suggestion-dessert)
Because of the molten Apple Brandy caramel centre of the chocolate, I felt a cheese with a more indulgent edge was needed. I found that it worked with White Stilton (English) or even better still was the Vallage triple crème cheese (French) (Available from Waitrose) because this is rich, creamy and smooth which heightens the richness of the chocolate. A sweet dessert wine from Waitrose called ‘Seriously Plummy’ priced at £10.99 would make a good pairing for this combination.
Cuban Baracoa 65 Ginger & Lime (Serving Suggestion-cheeseboard)
Now I know that this went down a storm with Willie’s Cacao and it did when I tried it! The exotic warm notes from the Ginger & Lime chocolate needed careful consideration and so at first a Manchego (Spanish) was tasted and that seemed to be a superb pair because a sheep’s milk cheese is slightly mellower but provided a milky edge to calm the warm notes from the chocolate. What worked also is Cornish Blue (English) by adding a creamy edge and piquant flavour from the blue both the chocolate and the cheese seemed to join together. When serving I suggest the St. Marks aperitivo di Italia an aromatised wine based drink, It has orange zest, anise and tropical-like flavours. Best served ice cold on the rocks and this will balance the flavours.
I really hope that you have enjoyed reading this article and that it has inspired you to become more adventurous when it comes to chocolate and food pairings. The quality of the chocolate produced by Willie’s cacao is sublime and all the chocolate is available from their online shop here at http://www.willieschocolateshop.com/ so you can indulge your chocolate taste buds today!
Have a sweet weekend!