The wonderful world of Willie's cacao

Imogen Corke
20 April, 2015

Cooked writer Imogen Corke stepped into the world of Willie Harcourt-Cooze, chocolate expert, to find out why single origin is better, and discover why we should all be thinking outside the box when it comes to cooking with chocolate.

Cocoa beans around the world: same but different

Led through back corridors and anonymous doors of a restaurant in Shoreditch, I emerged, slightly disoriented, to the luxurious smell of steaming chocolate in a private library. Champagne cocktail spiked with cacao-infused brandy in hand, I was introduced to Willie Harcourt-Cooze, chocolate enthusiast and the brains behind Willie’s Cacao, an artisan chocolate company. Willie uses beans grown all over the world but he is passionate about making single origin bars; I wanted to know more about the distinctive flavours from different countries. There are two main types of chocolate Willie produces, one is the 100% cacao solids, which are used for cooking, and the second is a slightly sweetened eating chocolate containing a little cacao butter and a small percentage of raw cane sugar. Each of the different farmers he works with produce different tasting cacao, and as a result very different chocolate bars. Fortunately to illustrate the differences and explain the benefits of one over the other, many different chocolates needed to be sampled, from the nutty Las Trincheras from Venezuela, to the lively Sambirano bean from Madagascar.


Pure cacao: far from vanilla

When the chocolate is this pure the difference in flavour is clear; they range from fruity and floral to spicy and roasted. These variations are significantly more interesting than choosing milk chocolate or dark, with caramel or raisins, or the many other decisions we might make in our local corner shops. Rather than allowing the intensity of the cacao beans to be flattened with the inclusion of soy lecithin or vanilla, as most commercial chocolates are, the substantial cacao solids Willie uses means the flavour lingers and you only need a small taste to get an intense hit from the chocolate. I now know why chocolate was revered by the Aztecs!


Chocolate and fried eggs: why it works

The 100% cacao cylinders are used in savoury foods to add intensity and depth of flavour to a wide range of dishes. We sampled one of Willie’s favourite breakfast combinations, avocado and a fried quails egg on cacao bread, with cacao harissa, sprinkled with grated cacao. The rich chocolate savoury notes complemented the runny egg yolk surprisingly well, and the avocado provided freshness. We also ate a creamy mushroom and cacao risotto that had a wonderful complex flavour. I’d definitely make one of these dishes at home, particularly if trying to outfox friends who think they can guess the recipe! I have already added some 100% cacao to a ragout, with very popular results. Cacao looks set to become a firm favourite as my new secret ingredient!


Once all the tasting was done, I quizzed Willie on how to use chocolate in savoury dishes, and get my hands on the recipes. 


What was the first savoury dish you tried with chocolate?

Mole was the first thing I cooked, because that’s the classic South American savoury dish using cacao. I was on my farm, it was 1996 and it was the beginning of my experimenting with cacao. The climate was so hot that it never really occurred to me to make sweet chocolate, so cooking with 100% was how my thoughts naturally ran.


What flavours in chocolate make it compatible with savoury dishes?

It’s cacao that is the hero in savoury dishes because without the sugar, it wears a totally different flavour hat to chocolate. 100% cacao is a real building block of flavour and you use it like you would salt or pepper, it is amazingly versatile. The real fun comes with all the different types of beans which, like fine wines, all have different flavour profiles – one may taste of nuts, another of caramel, another of raisins and plums. As ever, it is about balancing flavours. You may choose to evoke the heat of chillis or peppercorns with the lively citrusy tones of a Madagascan cacao. A staple for me is pan fried squid with chilli and grated cacao. On the other hand the nutty Las Trincheras from Venezuela, is a natural with an earthy porcini mushroom risotto. 


Can you pair white chocolate with savoury things?

This is honestly something that had never occurred to me to try, and that is probably for a very good reason! I made a 90% chocolate from Nicaraguan beans for my friend Giorgio Locatelli for him to use with pig’s cheek, but the 10% sugar in that is about as much sugar as you would ever want in a chocolate for savoury cooking.  My white chocolate has 30% sugar and some have up to 60%!


What's the most surprising combination you've come across?

A friend of mine was sending some of my cacao to some chefs in Paris, who were making cacao mayonnaise by making a light water ganache.


What definitely doesn't work with chocolate?

You have to be careful trying to put cacao with milk based savoury sauces – imagine milk chocolate without the sugar.


What's a sure-fire winner?

If you never do anything else with 100% cacao, put it into your gravies and casseroles.  You simply grate in a little at the end, when you are seasoning with your salt and pepper and you can see gravy blossom. It adds depths of flavour and brings a wonderful gloss and shine. You wouldn’t know it is there until someone has put too much in, then like anything else the flavours get out of balance.


Are there any recipes that historically use chocolate?

Mole is the classic. It’s a sauce that dates back to the early colonial times in Mexico and its invention is ascribed to a lively cast of monks, archbishops and nuns. It is dark, dark brown with a depth of flavour to match from the chillies, spices, nuts and chocolate, and you can use it on whatever meat you happen to have in the kitchen.


What dish would you cook to convince a doubter?

I would have to give them my breakfast! On my toasted cacao bread I layer half a sliced avocado, two fried duck eggs, dollops of my cacao harissa and a heavy grating of cacao. It is heaven on a plate.


Where in the world do your favourite cocoa beans come from, and why do they work well with savoury dishes?

You can imagine it has to be from El Tesoro, my farm in Venezuela. I took huge pains when I replanted the farm to find beans with classic criollo characteristics, but over time they have developed their own unique character, bursting with soft, mouth-filling fruitiness – they taste of deep, rich plums.


How did you get into chocolate making?

I found myself in Venezuela in 1993 and I came across the farm by chance. The owner of it at the time asked me if I would like to stay for a week and this was when I made my first chocolate - my first 100 percent cacao. I made it by simply roasting and shelling the beans then grinding them. We made a hot chocolate just with cacao, water and a touch of honey. I had never tasted anything like it, it was then that I was discovered what real chocolate was. It wasn’t until 2007 that I moved back to England and set up my chocolate factory. To start with I was making only the 100% cacao cylinders, all with my beautiful antique machines that I lovingly restored myself.

Want to give it a go? Try one of Willie’s signature recipes

Willie’s Venezuelan Breakfast

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Serves 2


4 large eggs
2 slices brown bread
1 ripe avocado
2 tbsp harissa or hot sauce
1 tbsp grated 100% cacao. You could try the softly fruity Peruvian Chulucanas
Toast the bread and halve the avocados, remove the stones, then peel and slice the flesh onto the hot toast.
Fry the eggs so the yolks are still soft and place them on top of the avocado. 
Splash on some hot sauce or harissa and give the whole plate a heavy grating of cacao

    No results found
    No more results
      No results found
      No more results
        No results found
        No more results
          No results found
          No more results
            No results found
            No more results
              No results found
              No more results
              Please start typing to begin your search
              We're sorry but we had trouble running your search. Please try again