Crumbs cooks with... Coco Caravan

by Emma Dance

05 January 2018

Chocoholics that we are here at Crumbs, we weren’t about to turn down the chance to visit Jacques Cöp from raw, vegan chocolatiers Coco Caravan to see where the chocolaty magic happens…

It was a middle-of-the-night epiphany that led Jacques Cöp to start making chocolate. He had been working as an ecologist, first in his native Netherlands, then in Australia, but a knee injury ended his outdoorsy career and Jacques found himself without a job.

“I was out of work and out of money,” he says. ”It was very stressful, and I was having these long sleepless nights. One night, though, at about 3am I just suddenly had the idea that I would make chocolate – I would make chocolate with caramel and nuts and all kinds of delicious things! Then, for the first time in a long time, I rolled over and fell asleep.

“In the morning I woke up and felt rested and had this really good energy, so I decided that making chocolate actually was the right thing to do. I went to the shop and bought a bunch of ingredients and just started making it. My partner loved it and other people loved it, so I started taking it to markets and it did really well. We were in Australia then, but my partner wanted to move to the UK so that’s what we did – and that’s when I started making chocolate full time, and Coco Caravan really started.”

Now Jacques produces around 25,000 bars a year, all made by hand, and all made from his home in Stroud, having repurposed the front room of the family home into a bijou chocolate factory (a happy side effect of which is the delicious chocolaty aroma that’s pervading the whole house). He makes 25 different varieties, with flavours like Chai Caramel, Tamari Almond and Coconut Mylk and Mango, and every single one is organic, raw and vegan.

“When I started, I experimented with many different ingredients,” he says. “At first I worked with dairy products, but so many people that I knew were vegan or lactose intolerant and they wanted chocolate that they could eat, so I just started taking things out. Soon everything I made was completely vegan.

“It was actually very easy; the only reason I would use milk was to lighten it down, and make the flavour a little less intense. Now, if I want to do that, I add coconut milk – and, actually, the Coconut Mylk is our best-selling bar.

“People’s knowledge and attitude to veganism has changed so much since I started four years ago. Back then, people would ask questions about what it meant when we said our chocolate was ‘vegan’. These days, though, everyone knows what it means to be vegan, and most people know someone who’s vegan. It’s definitely a lifestyle more people are adopting.”

And it’s not just dairy that Jacques has taken out. He’s also removed refined sugar from the process.

“I realised that if I was going to be doing this full time then I’d be eating a lot of chocolate,” he says. “So I decided that I needed to make it as healthy as possible, so instead of refined sugar I started using coconut sugar and nectar instead – and it worked. People don’t often realise how much sugar is in chocolate. You might get a bar that’s 80% cacao, but that still means that 20% of it is sugar. My normal dark chocolate bars are 72% cacao, so 28% is coconut sugar and nectar. It’s still sugar, but it’s completely unrefined and it’s a long chain sugar, which means that you don’t get that sugar spike and it hasn’t got that super-sweet aftertaste.”

There’re also health benefits attached to the fact that it’s raw chocolate, made with unroasted cacao beans. The antioxidant properties of the cacao bean are considerably higher in the raw product than in the roasted variety.

“When people talk about the health benefits of raw chocolate, they are looking at the fresh product – the bean and the nibs,” explains Jacques. “You can compare it to fruit. If you have a fresh apple that’s just come off the tree, it’s better when it’s perfectly ripe and fresh than if it’s been stored in a freezer for a year. And that’s better than if it’s been made into apple sauce, or cooked into some weird cake that you can buy in the supermarket for 20p.

“Also, as soon as you roast cacao it gets much more bitter – that’s why producers make high sugar, high milk chocolate bars. They also like that it’s so much easier to get the shells off once the beans have been roasted.”

Just how easy (or not!) it is to remove the shells is something that Jacques knows only too well. As a ‘bean to bar’ chocolatier, Jacques is involved in every single step of the creation of every single chocolate bar – beginning by removing all the shells. It’s a process known in the industry as ‘winnowing’, and although Jacques doesn’t quite do it by hand, it’s not far off.

He actually uses a machine of his own creation (which he’s made from various pieces of household equipment, including a vacuum cleaner!), which breaks and separates the hard outer shell from the prized bean inside. The shells are used to make tea, while the beans go into an intense grinding process, which can last up to nine hours. Jacques fires up the grinder and pours in the cocoa nibs, and it’s not long before they visibly begin to change in consistency, from small hard nuggets to a thick, slightly grainy paste. Considering that nothing has been added to them, the transformation is pretty remarkable.

Jacques explains that it’s all down to the natural fats in the cocoa that are released during the grinding process – but there’s a long way to go until it becomes the smooth liquid, with a consistency not dissimilar to melted chocolate, that he needs to work with. This can then be tempered on the large marble slab on the other side of the room, to give it shine and snap, and turned into bars – all of which are wrapped and packed by hand.

Of course, the quality of the finished product is totally reliant on the quality of the beans, and Jacques regularly travels to trade events to source new suppliers and share tips with other chocolatiers. He pulls out a few small bags of samples to show us the difference between different beans, and even our untrained eyes can see the difference between the slightly more shrivelled example which has an almost grey hue (bad), and the bright shiny ones that are the colour of, well, dark chocolate (good).

“It’s really important to me that the ingredients that I use are organic,” he says. “And that it’s Fairtrade, too. I am very happy making this chocolate, and people are very happy eating this chocolate, so I want the people who are growing the ingredients to be happy as well. Indeed, I want everyone in the process to have a happy, fulfilling experience.

“I only work with small producers, and I know they would all be happy for me to go and visit their farms – and that’s definitely something that’s on my wish list.

“The cacao I’m currently working with comes from Peru. It’s from an indigenous people and it’s their cash crop, so it helps support their community. But I’m always on the lookout for new beans. The thing about cacao is that it takes on the flavour of anything else that it grows with, so when I get a new sample I will always taste it carefully. I can almost instantly get a feel for what flavour combinations might work well with it, how much coconut sugar I might need to add, and if I’ll need to add cocoa butter or coconut milk.

“When it comes to making the chocolate for the first time with a new bean, though, it is still very much an experiment!”

Part of the beauty of working with a craft product like this, Jacques explains, is that there isn’t really competition between local producers. “There probably aren’t more than 30 bean-to-bar makers in the UK,” he says, “although I have noticed that, in the past year or so, there seems to be more raw chocolate about, probably because of the growing raw food trend. Of course, we all want to make the best chocolate and sell as much as we can, but nearly everyone is very open and willing to share their knowledge and experiences. We all learn from each other.”

It’s encouraging to learn that there’s no Wonka/Slugworth-style rivalry going on. And while Jacques’ home isn’t exactly Roald Dahl’s glorious chocolate factory, it certainly has a quirky charm, and – with all its makeshift bits of kit and creative flavour combos – it kind of is a world of pure imagination…