As Chocolate Week reaches its climax, Hotel Chocolat’s Angus Thirlwell explains why chocolate is more than just a guilty pleasure, how cocoa can be as good as aspirin, and why we should expect some surprises at his upcoming restaurant in Borough Market.
A sweet tooth runs in the family, so it was perhaps inevitable that Angus Thirlwell, co-founder of Hotel Chocolat, would get into the food business. But even he didn’t plan on becoming the owner of a cocoa plantation. He tells us how a chance gift from a customer nudged him towards a more ethical way of business, and a desire to transform the way we think about chocolate.
Where did your love of chocolate come from?
My father is one of the co-founders of Mr Whippy, and his mother owned cake shops in the north of England, so the foodie sweet tooth was in my genes. My business partner Peter [Harris] and I started Hotel Chocolat almost 10 years ago, though we had worked in the world of chocolate before that. We were totally happy having a nice chocolate business with a good reputation; we had no thoughts of getting involved in agriculture.
So how did you become a cocoa grower?
One of our customers, a member of our chocolate tasting club, was clearing out her shelves and found a book that belonged to her husband, an old book written in 1920 about living on a cocoa plantation. She posted it to me and said it had seemed too lovely to throw away and that she thought I might like it, even though we’d never met.
I was on my way to the Caribbean, to see my father in Barbados, where he has an ice-cream factory. I took the book with me, and read it in the setting where it was written. It was a convergence of the right things at the right time. It made me want to get into growing cocoa.
From being a chocolatier to running a plantation is quite a departure. What made you take the leap?
It was a heart-over-head decision. Sometimes you really have to trust your instincts, and the feeling that this was the right thing has made our business change. We have become more cocoa-centric and interested in the ideas of wellness from cocoa. I’ve not seen anyone doing anything like this, but it can only really come from being amid the cocoa and doing it. If you’re not getting dirt under your nails, you’ll be what we were: just another perfectly good chocolate business and brand.
Hotel Chocolat is the only company in the UK that produces the cocoa it uses. Why is that important to you?
The world of cocoa has become completely separate from the world of fine chocolate. In the wine world, for example, if you’re a grower of Burgundy grapes, it’s a noble thing and you are revered for the quality of your produce and paid appropriately. There’s no reason why cocoa growers shouldn’t be treated the same way. We bought an old plantation in St Lucia and restored it. It was a working plantation, and the people we bought it from had tried their best, but it was incredibly difficult for them and their workers to make even a subsistence living. The reason we were able to make a go of it is because we are also chocolate makers.
Once we’d sorted our own plantation, we started a programme called Engaged Ethics for the other growers on the island. So far, 120 growers have joined us, and the price they get for a kilo of cocoa has tripled, partly because we cut out the middle man and partly because they are simply paid more.
Now it’s a viable living, which shows how bad it was before. We’ve connected the two worlds – but if the two worlds were even better connected, consumers would be able to see what’s happening, and put pressure on the manufacturers. We’re also able to show our model to other people in cocoa. We’ve got a living blueprint of what the system should be like; it’s going to take a long time to get it on an even keel.
Where did you get the idea of opening a cocoa-themed restaurant?
After drinking too many rums one night, we started to ask ourselves what would be next, after the plantation, and we decided we needed to bring our customers over, so they could see how we grew the cocoa. To do that, we’d need to have a hotel, and if we had a hotel we’d have to have a restaurant. When we woke up the next morning it still seemed like a good idea, so we collaborated first with chef David Demaison, and then with our current executive chef, Jon Bentham, both of whom are very creative, to set up Boucan on our St Lucia estate.
How are you using chocolate on the menu?
Our chefs look out of the window, and all they can see is cocoa, so the idea was to use cocoa in a variety of ways. It’s a very under-utilised ingredient: our big idea is to show how it can be used as a savoury. The pulp of cacao is like lychee – very clean, fresh and sweet – and makes lovely sorbets and ice creams. When you ferment the cocoa bean in the sun and then roast it, it develops tasty nutty flavours which are good with fish, if you’re baking it, or to crumble into salads. You can use the cocoa mass with meat juices to make gravy for red wine stews. We had a lot of fun experimenting.
Is it true you eat chocolate every day?
It is! I eat chocolate and cocoa every day. My wife will tell you that I go a bit grumpy and don’t have the same energy if I don’t. It’s a key part of my fuel for the day. The stimulation comes from theobromine in the cocoa, which is a more gentle natural stimulant than caffeine. It’s great for giving you energy, and it’s good for your cardiovascular system: it dilates your blood vessels, the blood goes round faster, and it improves the performance of your heart. It’s as good as taking aspirin. Theobromine also helps to sharpen your cognitive reasoning, so it helps you have new ideas. It’s similar to coffee in that respect, but without the nervous anxiety that caffeine can give you. Over the coming years we see our mandate as educating people about the health benefits of cocoa.
First chocolate, then your own plantation, then a hotel and restaurant – what’s next?
Growing cocoa has added a whole new dimension to what we do. In November, we’re opening a second restaurant in Borough Market calledRabot 1745, named after the plantation where we grow our cocoa. In Borough, we’ll be right in the heart of foodie London, and people will be able to see quite distinctly what we do. Everything that’s happened has been because we’ve been listening to our customers. For me, this is a moment of serendipity. Having said that, I don’t feel we’re anywhere near finished yet.
ANGUS THIRLWELL’S FIVE WAYS TO EAT COCOA BEANS
- Sprinkled on porridge
- On top of a fried egg
- Mixed in with a salad
- With nuts as a snack
- Added to meat stock for extra-rich flavour
Read this article as it originally appeared on Flavourfirst here