Chocolate is a confection made from cacao beans, the seeds of the cacao plant. There are a large number of products made from it on the market, from powdered cocoa for making drinks to white chocolate, and most markets carry a cross-section of confections for their customers. In addition to being available at general markets and grocery stores, chocolate can also be purchased from specialty companies which make luxury and distinctive confections.
Cacao originated in Central America. Today, cacoa is mostly grown in South and Central America and in West Africa. Some countries in Asia are also starting to grow the crop. There are actually several varieties of the cacao plant, all of which produce chocolates with slightly different flavors. The flavor is also impacted by where the plant it grown, how it is handled after harvest, and how it is processed. Companies invest a great deal of money in developing ideal blends of cacao beans to create the flavors their consumers are used to.
Cacao beans grow in large pods which are harvested once they ripen and then allowed to ferment. Initially, the cacao beans are extremely bitter; the fermentation process softens the bitterness, allowing producers to move on the next steps, roasting and hulling. Roasting helps to develop the flavor of the beans, while shelling exposes the cacao nibs, the portion of the bean which has all the flavor.
Once cacao nibs are extracted, they must be ground into a substance known as chocolate liquor. This liquor isn't something you'd want to eat: it is extremely fatty, thanks to the cocoa butter it contains, and it is gritty and bitter. This liquid is then pressed to create what is known as press cake, a substance consisting primarily of cocoa solids, while the cocoa butter is allowed to drain away.
Once press cake has been created, producers have a number of options. To make cocoa, they can squeeze the press cake even more to isolate the cocoa solids before allowing it to dry and then pulverizing it. They can also blend some of the cocoa butter back in, along with sugar and other ingredients, to produce eating chocolate, which is subjected to a process called conching to create a smooth, creamy confection without any traces of grittiness. Eating varieties can also be adulterated with milk, creating milk chocolate, and the level of sweetness can vary widely. For white chocolate, cocoa butter is mixed with vanilla and milk.
The history of chocolate is almost as interesting as the confection itself. In its native South America, it was prepared in drinks reserved for royalty and high ranking members of society. When European explorers visited, they were introduced to chocolate, and upon bringing the food back to Europe, it became a big hit. Eventually, Europeans started experimenting, adding sugar and other ingredients and ultimately developing a process which would allow them to make bars in addition to drinks. With the development of bar chocolate, confectioners realized that it had a wide range of possibilities, from candy bar coating to truffles, and the once rare luxury turned into an extremely profitable global industry.