The Real Oompah Loompahs

IN the inventing room at the Cadbury chocolate factory – the most famous, enormous, marvellous chocolate factory in the whole world – experts in white outfits are working on something new. They are pouring hot liquid chocolate out of silver mixing bowls onto large marble tables, spreading it around with spatulas, and shaping it into solid little bunker-structures with a swirly finish. This, we’re told today, is all part of “Project Smile”. But they cannot tell us any more than that.

“Project Smile is confidential,” says young chocolate scientist Adam Harris. “This product will probably take another two or three years of development.” I am momentarily so excited by this that I contemplate snatching his prototypes with both fists and gobbling them up like bad children in a fairytale. Like everyone else here at the Bournville plant near Birmingham, Harris knows that he is employed in a vaguely fantastical place of industry. Chocolate has always had desirous, mysterious effects on consumers. The Aztecs of Central America used to worship it as the food of the gods, and their last great ruler, Montezuma II, would drink goblets of it in his harem for potency (until Spanish invaders killed him and his people, and stole their cocoa beans).

Centuries later, in 1964, Roald Dahl wrote Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, and mythologised the manufacturing process itself.  “We are the music makers,” says Dahl’s reclusive, over-stimulated chocolate magnate Willy Wonka, “and we are the dreamers of dreams.” The novel has since become one of the best-selling childrens’ books of all time. Mel Stuart’s 1971 movie adaptation Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory has become an enduringly popular piece of surrealist musical mind-warping. And Tim Burton’s new film version will be released in the UK at the end of the month, starring Johnny Depp as Wonka. If Burton’s movie achieves the same effect as Stuart’s, it will soon be harder than ever to imagine the mass production of cocoa-based confectionery without picturing chocolate waterfalls, freak industrial accidents involving greedy, ill-mannered children, and an intimidating identical workforce of stony-faced singing pygmies.

“Oh yeah, the Oompa Loompas,” says Adam Harris in the Bournville inventing room or, as Cadbury prefers to call it, the “development kitchen”. “You’ve got no idea how many times I’ve been called an Oompa Loompa. I don’t really mind, because it’s quite funny. We were actually all singing the Oompa Loompa song before you came in here today. But we had to stop because it really does your head in after a while.” Roald Dahl was originally inspired to write Charlie And The Chocolate Factory by this very building. In the early 1930s, Cadbury would send packages of newly-developed products from Bournville to local public schools for the children to taste and grade. These test sites included the young Dahl’s dormitory at Repton, near Derby.

At occasional moments throughout his miserable school days, Dahl would receive a cardboard box containing 12 chocolate samples and a grading paper. He took the job seriously, to the point of snobby aestheticism. In his 1984 autobiography, Boy: Tales Of Childhood, Dahl recalls commenting that one particular chocolate tasted “too subtle for the common palate”. But he also remembered trying to visualise the place where these flavours were concocted – where ingredients were synthesised to create something more valuable and nourishing than food itself: Pleasure. Comfort. Delight. Escape. “I used to picture a long white room like a laboratory, with pots of chocolate bubbling away,” wrote Dahl. “I used to picture myself working in one of these labs, and suddenly I would come up with something so unbearably delicious that I would go rushing right into the office of the great Mr Cadbury himself. It was lovely dreaming those dreams.”

There have, in fact, been many Mr Cadburys in the past. Bournville was built here by Cadbury brothers George and Richard in 1878, who had inherited an ever- expanding chocolate empire from their father John, a Quaker businessman who started out by selling cocoa drinks in his Birmingham tea shop. The company has long since become a plc rather than a family company, but there are still Cadburys on the board, and descendant Dominic Cadbury only stepped down as chairman in 2000. We learn this among many other things on our tour around the factory today with Cadbury communications manager Tony Bilsborough.

Bilsborough doesn’t have quite the demented, sadistic brio of Willy Wonka – he says he’s never even read the book, or seen the original movie – but he knows a lot about chocolate. And while Bournville isn’t quite the giant engine of invention that Roald Dahl had in mind, it really does contain sights to make you use exclamation marks like one of his characters: “It’s impossible!” “It’s fantastic!” “Whoopee!” Tony Bilsborough has worked here for nine years, and he knows all too well that chocolate-making is probably the only industrial process that makes people this giddy.

“I work in a chocolate factory for God’s sake,” he says, on our way past signs that read SPIRA PLANT and M2 CREME EGG GRINDING, “and I decided early on that I would never become blasé about it. This is a place people dream of working, and it would be rude to disregard that.” Bilsborough proceeds to walk us though the whole process. We go under the pipes that shoot chocolate crumb – the core element of most Cadbury products – around the plant, and through the “wet-end”, which is where the crumb is processed and mixed with cocoa butter. It’s kept hotter than human blood in there, because chocolate melts at body temperature, and it smells tropical because in essence it is – cocoa trees only grow near the equator.

Bilsborough lets me sip from a cup of the liquid mixture, which tastes like it’s been swabbed from the dying walls of a gorgeous chocolate palace that has just been destroyed by the sun. Worker Syd Hope, who’s been here 23 years, tells me he never touches the stuff himself. “Nah,” says Hope. “It just tastes like work to me. I eat Mars bars myself, ha ha ha.” Cadbury are in direct competition for shelf-space with Mars and Nestle (who were recently given the licence to produce their own range of Wonka bars) but Bilsborough says they’re winning. In the UK, 250 million Dairy Milk bars, all made on these premises, are sold every year.

“Competition is a good thing,” he says, “as long as you’re number one. A few years ago, there might still have been an argument about whether Mars, Kit Kat or Dairy Milk was the biggest-selling chocolate in Britain, but not anymore.” Moving on, we see the liquid chocolate poured onto primary-coloured moulds at a rate of 13,000 blocks per hour, through a loud, rhythmic machine-press operated by Mahesh Vadgama. Vadgama has worked here since 1979, and these days, he says, the job is “much safer and cleaner, much less physical”. He’s a fan of Willy Wonka, and admits that the original movie coloured his perceptions of this place. “When you watch it,” says Vadgama, “and then you come into the factory, it seems similar. It makes you fantasise.”

He’s right, I think, watching the cooled bars travel down curved conveyors where they are clamped, wrapped, and boxed so fast that my eye can barely follow them. Whizzz! Wheeee! Wow! It’s not magic. There’s no secret to it. But there is, as Dahl imagined, an element of the marvellous. Of course, as with every other industry, technology tends to advance at the expense of the workforce. There are 3000 people working at Bournville, and many of them have spent their whole careers here. But there were, between the first and second world wars, 15,000 employees on site.

“Without wanting to sound like a salesman,” says Tony Bilsborough, “this is one of the best places to work in the food industry. Good pay, good health care, good benefits. But it’s a hard fact of business that new computers and processes inevitably do come along, and we try to offer voluntary redundancies and good packages for employees who are coming to the end of their working lives.” And what about the farmers, I have to ask, on our way over to the chocolate- tasting annex. All Cadbury cocoa beans are imported from Ghana to their processing plant in Chirk, North Wales. They are not “fairly-traded” in the sense that they’re not bought directly from the African growers themselves. Cadbury, as Bilsborough admits, only “step in at the ports”, and buys beans already bought and graded by the Ghana cocoa board. But this doesn’t mean, he says, “that we’ve got barbed wire and guards around all the farms”.

“We actually try to get involved in as many social programmes as possible in Ghana,” he says. “Building wells, helping to develop biodiversity and micro- insecticides and greener ways to protect the crops.” In Panel Room 2, under the guidance of Cadbury’s chief taster, George Dadd, I get to experience the raw product itself – no sugar, no milk, 100% pure liquor cocoa. The procedure is almost naughty: you sit in a booth under a dim red light, and a young lab worker called James slides open a panel to pass through trays of Dairy Milk chunks and small, unmarked plastic jars. This is where Dadd and his tasting teams use their trained palettes “to maintain quality assurance”.

As for the liquor cocoa, Dadd warns me that “it will be very bitter and astringent,” just as I drop a blob of the stuff in my mouth. No kidding – it’s like trying to contain a petro-chemical leak with my tongue. I am baffled and outraged that the European Union recently planned to standardise chocolate so that UK confectionery would contain less milk and more of this strange fossil muck.

“We beat them on that, basically,” says Bilsborough. “It was one of those chocolatey issues that affects the whole industry. We sat down with Mars and Nestle and we managed to convince the EU that we should be celebrating the differences in our chocolate. The idea of one single Euro recipe was just ridiculous.” Aside from these united “chocolatey-issues”, he says Cadbury maintains a “friendly rivalry” with the competition. But what about industrial espionage? Didn’t Willy Wonka became so eccentric precisely because of a (justified) fear that rival confectioners such as Mr Slugworth would steal his recipes? Bilsborough thinks the modern possibility unlikely.

“There’s room for everyone now, I think. And if someone came to us with underhand information about a rival, we wouldn’t use it.” If the enemy did send chocolate spies, of course, they would want to see the inventing room, which looks almost the way Roald Dahl pictured it. In here, the machines have names like the Petzholdt Conche Nibbler, and Project Smile is well under way. And there is something in the corner, some monumental shape hidden under a thin sheet. Adam Harris pulls back the veil, and I stand agog . Beneath lies the Frankenstein’s monster of chocolate bars, a grotesquely enlarged block of Dairy Milk, each gigantic, delicious chunk bigger than a human head.

Apparently Harris and his fellow Oompa Loompa singers have just made it for a charity event. They’re amused by my wonderstruck reaction, but they’ve seen it before. “We get like that ourselves sometimes,” says Harris. “Chocolate’s a funny thing really. You never get sick of working with it, and people never stop eating it or getting excited about it. That’s why this is a good job.”

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