Food & Drink Real-live Wonkas: what it’s really like to run a...

Real-live Wonkas: what it’s really like to run a chocolate factory

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The notion of a magical chocolate factory has held a powerful fascination for readers and filmgoers ever since Roald Dahl’s tale of Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka was first published almost 60 years ago. This week’s major release, with Timothée Chalamet in the title role of Wonka, is the third major cinematic treatment of Mr W’s wondrous works, and seems sure to enthral audiences in the same sweet spell as its predecessors.

This latest instalment winds the story clock back to the days before Wonka’s plutocratic eminence and tells the origin story of how the young Willy Wonka first burst onto the confectionery scene to challenge and confound the sinister cabal of Big Chocolate. So we encounter the youthful Wonka not as the ever-so-slightly sinister and moralistic proprietor of a chocolate factory on a breathtaking scale, but as an energetic chocolatier with a small shop and a large suitcase (with even larger capabilities).

The aesthetic is Fantastic Beasts meets Paddington and Harry Potter, but the appeal for anyone with a sweet tooth will be as powerful as the original 1971 (Gene Wilder) and 2005 remake (Johnny Depp) films. Then, as now, filmgoers set eyes on the chocolate factory – or on the shop and the suitcase – and think: I want to go there.

At this point, it would be marvellous to wiggle the fingers and make a sweeping gesture à la Chalamet and say: “Readers… you can!”. But in many years as the Telegraph’s chocolate expert, I have yet to come across an actual waterfall of the stuff, or bonbons that make you fly or – perhaps mercifully – any Oompa-Loompas.

I do remember visiting Hotel Chocolat’s ultra-modern factory and being impressed not by a river of chocolate running through it, but by a rather more mundane tap that produced molten chocolate at the twirl of a fingertip. The charm here was in the metallic ballet of the machines and their human assistants, and the magic took place not on the factory floor but in the Inventing Room high above, where chocolate scientists in gowns and gloves tested flavour combos with droplets from pipettes and experimental soft centres.

This is the kind of kit that Chalamet’s Wonka produces from his suitcase-based mobile factory: the kit is not all that different, though in the cinema charismatic sleight-of-hand stands in for scientific precision.

Alas, Hotel Chocolat’s factory is not open to the public. But there are, I am happy to confirm, decidedly quirky chocolate factories in Britain that unquestionably have something magical about them and – more in keeping with the film which opened this week – there are combinations of chocolate shop and chocolate factory where you can both see chocolates being made, and purchase the finished product.

“I’ve spent the past seven years travelling the world, perfecting my craft,” Chalamet’s Wonka announces, and we see him striding around tropical locations, spotting and fondling what appear to be entirely real cocoa pods, which are magically colourful in real life. “You see,” he says, “I’m something of a magician, inventor, and chocolate maker.”

All the best chocolate makers are. And the one who comes closest, in more ways than one, to Mr Wonka is Willie Harcourt-Cooze of Willie’s Cacao, whose Devon factory is as characterful as its proprietor. The sprawling premises are located in a number of charming sheds, outwardly appealing but inwardly spotless, close to the village of Uffculme.

Alas, they are not usually open to the public. But Harcourt-Cooze, a lanky, energetic and slightly posh chap of 59, posts plenty of videos of his set-up on social media and starred some 15 years ago in a Channel 4 documentary, Willie’s Wonky Chocolate Factory.

Since then, the factory has become less wonky and his range of ethical and tasty bars – keenly priced and available in supermarkets as well as online – has grown and flourished. But the Uffculme premises, which Harcourt-Cooze kindly showed me round while I was writing a book about British chocolate makers, remain enchantingly off-beam.

When he was starting out, all his machines were “second-hand, or ancient, or both”, according to Harcourt-Cooze. Even though he has a lot more modern kit now, he still delights in elegant machines, hefty with steel and iron and styled with the swooping lines of a past era, which are sometimes salvaged from the factories of now-defunct rivals.

The old machines may be smaller and slower than the more efficient new ones but, says Harcourt-Cooze, they somehow “capture the subtle notes and unique flavours of our cacao in a way that modern machines are unable to. It all takes time”. But great things are surely worth waiting for. His factory produces tens of thousands of bars a year, and he imports beans by the industrial container-load, having tried them in person in the countries where they grow.

Other British makers, meanwhile, work on a smaller scale, in factory-cum-shops where you can see them at work, as well as savour the fabulous aroma of chocolate in the making. At Dormouse Chocolates in Manchester, for instance, chief chocolate maker Isobel Carse and her partner Karen Hughes both create and sell beautiful chocolate bars – their own and those of a few other artisan makers – in their smart bare-brick premises at Deansgate close to the centre of the city.

Their machinery is modern and on a smaller scale than Harcourt-Cooze’s behemoths; indeed, a good bit of their kit would fit inside Timothée Chalamet’s suitcase. But that means that their entire manufacturing set-up fits into the shop, and it also means that each of their bars is handmade by an expert.

“Everything is done in a very hands-on, lo-fi way,” Carse explains, “from hand sorting the beans before roasting, to hand-tempering on marble and wrapping the bars.” The results have won prestigious international awards, including several golds in the annual Academy of Chocolate Awards, and their Toasted White bar – a kind of Caramac of the Gods – is much prized by chocolate connoisseurs.

Bullion in Sheffield, run by Max Scotford, is a small-scale chocolate shop, cafe and factory set up in picturesque, industrial-chic surroundings in Kelham Island, formerly a centre of the city’s cutlery trade: “We’re now using the knives and forks instead of making them,” notes Scotford.

Their robustly-flavoured bars are made from scratch on the premises using ethically-sourced beans, and the on-site bake shop employs the chocolate in mouth-watering brownies. Factory tours can be booked every weekend, and are often combined with cocktail serves and chocolate-and-wine pairing sessions.

At the other end of the scale is Cadbury World, the theme park attached to the vast and historic Cadbury factory in Bournville on the outskirts of Birmingham. This huge complex, on the scale of Willy Wonka at the height of his fame, was once  a cradle of enlightened capitalism, providing not just employment for the people of Birmingham, but also attractive housing and leisure facilities on an impressive scale.

These days, Cadbury is owned by a faceless US conglomerate and its manufacturing is spread far and wide. Some is still done here, though visitors get to play at chocolate-making and wander past faintly dull displays rather than observing the production line. The point of it all, fairly obviously, is the exit through the vast gift shop, a junk chocolate fan’s dream, but not very magical to my mind.

My favourite chocolate factory, strange to relate, is the one I never found, and never will. A few years ago, a chocolate company based in Wales made delicious bars that I often shared with friends and colleagues – there was one involving peanut butter and milk chocolate that was particularly scrumptious.

When I came to write a book about British chocolate makers, I resolved to visit their premises, apparently a once derelict chocolate factory somewhere in the Black Mountains that they had revived, restoring old machinery and moulds. I viewed some wonderfully evocative film clips and photographs on their website and was entranced.

Emails, texts and even old-fashioned phone calls to the company failed to elicit a response, so one misty, wintry day I drove up into the remote mountains, armed only with SatNav and a postcode. But the SatNav gave out, starved of a signal, as did my phone, and I drove around semi-overgrown single-track roads in circles, asking bewildered farmers and solitary walkers if they knew of a chocolate factory. None did, and as darkness fell I was forced to abandon the quest.

I never found the factory, or saw the bars again, and I sometimes wonder whether I dreamed it all… I would happily make the quest again, on the ghost of a rumour, such is the allure of fine chocolate and the weird and wonderful premises where it is made.

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