On an idyllic Venezuelan beach, chocolate entrepreneur Willie Harcourt-Cooze felt a spark of interest when he heard from a man renting out sunshades that a nearby hacienda – a large farm with an estate house – was up for sale.
It was 1993 and Harcourt-Cooze was taking some time out to travel after setting up and running a nightclub in London’s Soho. “It sounded like a real adventure, but I had no serious intention of buying,” he says.
Harcourt-Cooze did end up buying the hacienda, with its three-bedroom estate house and 1,000 acres of mountain, jungle and cacao trees. After three years of on-off negotiations with the Venezuelan owner, Harcourt-Cooze and his then wife, Tania, settled into the Hacienda El Tesoro in the cloud forest of the Henri Pittier National Park, high above the modest single-storey, pastel-coloured houses of the town of Choroní.
Harcourt-Cooze now divides his time between a home close to his UK chocolate factory in Uffculme, Devon; Hacienda El Tesoro (the name means “treasure”); and frequent trips around the world sourcing cacao beans and marketing his chocolate, sold under the Willie’s Cacao brand.
“It was on my first visit to Hacienda El Tesoro that I experimented with cacao,” says Harcourt-Cooze. “Tania and I were shown around the estate by Bertilio and Ricardo, two estate hands who still work for me today. They gave me some beans and I made hot chocolate from the beautiful, thick cacao liquid, using water boiled in the open, adding a bit of honey. It’s a drink that has been around for 4,000 years but I had never tasted anything quite like it.”
The wildlife also made a lasting impression. “The owner, a man called Fernando, seemed to appreciate my interest in the hacienda. But frankly it was easy to be blown away by it all – the bright blue butterflies, the monkeys and sloths, the birds screeching. There was an incredible sense of space – it took two hours to hike through the undergrowth to the highest point on the estate. I was hooked, and I knew that I could make a living there.”
The couple stayed in Choroní for two years, waiting for Fernando to sign a contract of sale. During that time Harcourt-Cooze learnt everything he could about cacao – inventing recipes that fused cacao paste with mangoes, chilli and even tuna – and he fished with the locals, sharing his catch, in the local tradition, when he had fish to spare.
Adventure runs in the family. Harcourt-Cooze was born in London in 1964 to an Irish mother and a Burmese father, who fell for an island off the west coast of Ireland while on holiday and bought it impulsively, moving his family to rural County Kerry when Willie was four.
“Growing up on a farm made me practical,” says Harcourt-Cooze. “It also made it perfectly natural for me to want to prepare food with the raw materials that were at hand.”
But Harcourt-Cooze’s dream of buying El Tesoro looked set to end in failure. “The deal just kept falling through. After we had our passports and wallets stolen we came to the conclusion that it was time to leave Choroní,” he says.
In 1996, after returning to London, the phone rang with unexpected news. “It was Fernando. He had made a final decision to sell. I remortgaged my flat and Tania sold a Harley-Davidson and a few shares, and we bought El Tesoro,” he says. The couple were given an early lesson in Venezuela’s rigid social hierarchy when they returned to Choroní and announced to their old friends in town and at the fishing wharf that El Tesoro was, finally, theirs. “We had been living quite simply and many people were amazed that we had bought a whole estate. It wasn’t something that locals could ever envisage doing,” says Harcourt-Cooze.
Historically, Venezuela’s 17th-century cacao boom had boosted the economy but also entrenched wealth and power in a tiny landowning oligarchy.
Harcourt-Cooze initially ran his hacienda as an eco-tourism lodge, capitalising on the growing popularity of Choroní as a weekend destination for residents of Caracas, a four-hour drive away.
But the experimentation with chocolate-making continued. Harcourt-Cooze supervised the shelling of the pods and grinding of the beans, at the beginning using pipes to make bars when no moulds were available, and ordering foil and labels to wrap his first products.
Sophia and William, the eldest of the Harcourt-Coozes’ three children, were born in Venezuela. However, the adobe-walled El Tesoro – part of which locals say dates back to 1640 – while undeniably charming, needed immediate structural work to cope with a young family. Harcourt-Cooze also had to contend with Venezuela’s slow-moving and unpredictable bureaucracy: “By the time we had received permission to rebuild, we didn’t have the money to carry out the repairs. The timing just didn’t work out.”
And politically, too, Venezuela was changing. Soon after the late Hugo Chávez came to power in February 1999, it became clear that the landowners’ lot would not be an easy one. “I had good relationships with the locals. I had all the usual problems of proving ownership but the estate was never invaded [by squatters looking for land to settle on] as happened elsewhere,” says Harcourt-Cooze.
In 2002, against the background of a deteriorating security situation – and with corruption as well as kidnappings and violence on the rise – Harcourt-Cooze and his family returned to the UK, with Harcourt-Cooze spending half of each year making chocolate at El Tesoro and overseeing the cacao production.
In Devon, he now processes beans in a restored roaster that was first used in Spain in the 1920s. “People in Britain are enthusiastic about real chocolate, for cooking as well as eating. We produced about 70 tonnes of chocolate in 2012 and I hope we will be able to double that figure this year,” he says.
In Venezuela, meanwhile, the Bolivarian revolution started by Chávez is set to continue for at least six more years following the election of his handpicked successor, Nicolás Maduro, in April.
So what about the future of El Tesoro? “I hope that I will retire there, although it’s a long way ahead. It would also be wonderful if one or more of my children took it over,” says Harcourt-Cooze.
“But I also would like to set up a centre of excellence for chocolate-making at El Tesoro. Over the years and through my travels, I’ve learnt a lot about what you can do with cacao. I would like to give that knowledge back to the people of Choroní.”
• Year-round warmth and sunshine
• Plentiful fresh meat and tropical fruit
• It costs less than US$1 to fill your car with petrol
• Much of the country’s infrastructure is in a state of disrepair
• Venezuela is corrupt, ranking 165th out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index
• Urban areas are extremely violent, and kidnappings are a risk in the countryside
What you can buy for
£100,000 A used two-bedroom apartment in the middle-class Altamira district of Caracas
£1m A four-bedroom detached home with a swimming pool on a secure estate in the outskirts of Caracas