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Features / Onça chocolate: crafting change in a local hall

Michael Williamson tempering the chocolate. Photo: Erin Rizzato Devlin

LOCAL CRAFT chocolate maker Michael Williamson is bringing together playfulness, sustainability and passion in the kitchen of a Shetland hall.

In the Whiteness and Weisdale Hall, Williamson has been experimenting with his passion for bean-to-bar craft chocolate, spending the last few years setting up his own company.

Onça chocolate was launched just in time for Valentine’s Day this year, following a long journey spanning from the quietude of the global pandemic till today.

Explaining how this exploration started Williamson says: “I used to work one week on, one week off, so I was trying to fill my free time. I always had a curiosity about craft chocolate: the more I learned about it, the more it resonated with me.”

Coming from a music background, with a degree in music business, Williamson applies a similar process to chocolate making.

“It’s like making an album,” he says.

“Each bar is different and I like the process of creating a cover and packaging to experience what’s inside. My plan is that once something sells out, that’s it – I’m not doing it again. I always start from zero, it keeps things fun.”

Pouring the chocolate. Photo: Erin Rizzato Devlin

The name Onça means ‘jaguar’ in Brazilian-Portuguese, a word that kept appearing and tracing the steps of Williamson’s visit to Brazil. The name also reflects his personal fascination for the creature, which was worshipped as a deity in ancient South American cultures. The animal was in fact seen as a creature of the night capable of crossing through worlds.

Explaining the comparison between the jaguar and his brand’s philosophy, Williamson says: “They’re not reckless or savage, yet they have a power, valour, and protectiveness behind them. They can be playful, without sacrificing their ferocity. It just felt right.”

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The logo in fact represents a jaguar in the stance of the rampant lion along with a leaf, reflecting how Onça is dedicated to protecting nature in its endeavours.

Before launching his craft chocolate, in fact, Williamson sold a run of t-shirts with the jaguar logo and donated 100 per cent of those profits to two jaguar conservation charities.

“That was a way to announce the whole project, but also give back to good causes to show people how buying stuff can also lead to good things in practice,” he adds.

The brand is also characterised by a playful combination of flavours and colours of nature, to reflect the values and traits of the world-crossing animal, as well as the places of origin of the carefully selected ingredients.

An example of this is his 70 per cent dark chocolate bar: “I’ve made a bar with beans from Guatemala, cocoa butter from Venezuela, sugar from Brazil, and an addition of sea salt from Shetland, which is a good marriage. It’s about bringing things inherent to a place together, that wouldn’t naturally find themselves together.”

Hands working. Photo: Erin Rizzato Devlin

Particularly at a time when the trading price of cacao has recently risen almost 300 per cent with the highest measure of price volatility since the 1970s, Williamson highlights the value of hand-crafted chocolate as opposed to mass-produced.

“The chocolate industry can be imagined as a complete car crash: it is systematically flawed in every way and the only people winning are the ‘Big Chocolate’ companies,” he states.

These surging prices for cacao, in fact, are particularly affecting craft chocolate makers who traditionally pay higher prices for quality beans. However, although craft chocolate often has a further price, that money allows for a situation where “everyone wins”.

“If you go to a supermarket and buy a chocolate bar, it’s scary to think how little of that is actually going to the people growing it,” Williamson says.

“If you have such a cheap product at the end, someone has to pay for that. I believe chocolate should be fun, but it shouldn’t be a commodity: it should be valued more.”

Sustainability and ethics

Moreover, climate change, deforestation, poor harvests and other environmental events have affected cocoa production particularly in West Africa, where most commodity chocolate gets its cocoa. This region also has a number of other issues, including exploitation and child labour.

Williamson adds: “This is what has drawn me into this so deeply: we need systematic change to tackle the structural issues in the cocoa industry, and I guess that does begin with craft chocolate.

“Craft chocolate demonstrates the potential for paying farmers fairly and fostering long-term commitments to improve quality and sustainability.

In other words: “Instead of putting new tyres on a wrecked car and claiming it can run again, we need a greater shift to enact real change in the cocoa industry.”

When sharing his thoughts about the local hall he has been using in Whiteness, Michael highlights the importance of community to “crafting chocolate in solitude”.

He continues: “The standard of this kitchen is impeccable. It has shown me the strength of community, it fills me with inherent goodness and strength. Being allowed to use this hall is so valuable.

“I’m usually here when no-one else is, I like having my own space. Being alone but not lonely. When I leave people tell me the whole hall smells like chocolate, which is always forgivable!”

The chocolate maker said the response to his products so far has been “overwhelmingly positive”, as there has been a popular demand for “Michael’s chocolate” in Scoop.

His chocolate, however, is not only sought after locally: it has already received interest in Portugal and Norway, and plans outwith Shetland may be in the pipeline for the near future.

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