I didn’t always worship raisins. As a kid, I insisted they were inferior to fruit snacks and fake-cheese filled crackers. Then, one day during breakfast at university, I reached into the opaque plastic cereal bin and pulled out a scoop of Fruit ‘n’ Fibre cereal instead of Crunchy Nut. I converted immediately thanks to those chewy-sweet raisins. Raisins do that to you: they lodge stick themselves into your daily routine.
Have you examined the folds along the raisin’s skin, shrinking as they near the oval ends? Or are raisins simply an afterthought in your cinnamon-spiked bagel? Raisins are more than a snack. Their history, rarity and ubiquity have created lore and merit reverence.
I am not the only raisin freak; raisins boast a global, historic fandom. Persians and Egyptians have enjoyed raisins since 2000 B.C. In ancient Greece and Rome, athletes won raisins in competitions. Residents of China’s Xinjiang province — which borders Mongolia — build Chunche, large, well-ventilated structures for drying mass amounts of grapes. Victorian revellers played Snapdragon — a holiday game that required participants to snatch raisins from a bowl of flaming brandy. Amidst scorched tongues and burnt fingers, a golden raisin waited to assure good luck for one player. Whether inspiring athletic ability, erecting special drying facilities, or causing burns, seemingly simple raisins coerce admirers to toil for ambrosia.
Despite plenty of outlandish raisins tradition, most honour raisins as a delicious food. Take mincemeat — a popular Christmas treat made from raisins, candied fruit and spices. Although cooks once used it to preserve meat for the winter, the rich filling now signals ‘holiday’ for Brits eager for Mr. Kipling’s mini-mince pies to arrive at Sainsbury. Similarly, hot cross buns — a yeasted sweet roll with currants — were once more than a pre-Easter treat. They supposedly kept away mould, maintained friendships and protected kitchens from evil spirits. During Nowruz, Persian New Year, and Mehregan, the autumn harvest festival, cooks feature raisins in cookies and rice dishes to display bounty and thanks. Then there’s China’s polu rice, Austria’s raisin-studded apfelstrudel and Sicily’s raisin-studded pasta con le sarde. For those who think of raisins as a regular snack, these holiday traditions demonstrate that it’s not just cereal that gets us hooked on the dried fruit.
Today raisins aren’t only for holidays. With the snack box, raisins transitioned from treat to daily food. When California began to industrialise raisin production in the late-nineteenth century, growers needed consumers to regard raisins as a common ingredient to ensure a market for their product. Marketing gimmicks, like the Sun Maid Raisin girl, helped. Sun Maid’s founder allegedly saw a gorgeous girl drying her hair in the California sun and decided her smiling face would perfectly represent the raisin ethos. Thus, consumers saw raisins as symbols of life, beauty and health when consumed in regular, bountiful quantities previously reserved only for the wealthy during holidays.
Regardless of the Sun Maid girl’s legacy, raisin demand grew and cultivation practices developed. There were machines that shook grape trees, automatically separating grapes destined for wine from those for raisins. Growers welcomed methods for speeding up the drying process. This industrial growth helped California produce the approximately 1.9 tonnes it grows annually. American and Canadians eat about two thirds of these raisins while Japan and the UK receive most of the remainder for use in curry rice and my beloved cereal. Since the industrialisation of raisin production in the US, the raisin has ceased to be a natural miracle and become an international commodity and daily indulgence.
But California doesn’t monopolise global raisin production. Turkey, Greece, Iran and Afghanistan are among the largest producers, with Australia not far behind. From Turkey’s golden sultanas and Iran’s green long kashmar raisins to Australia’s packaged Sunbeam raisins and Greece’s Zante currants, there are enough raisin varieties for each country to maintain demand. While the differences between these varieties may seem minute, you don’t need to be a raisin connoisseur to discern between slightly vegetal green raisins and wine-y jumbo Flame raisins.
Then there are the grades and drying methods that mark the difference between stale trail mix raisins and pricey organic boxes. Ranging from Grade A to C, a top grade raisin has 18% hydration and is made from a mature grape. Raisins with 5% sugar and those with 15% sugar and grapes that were either ¾ matured or fully matured are classed separately. Ardent raisin-fans might argue that these unique grapes require distinct drying treatments. Grapes can be: dried on the vine, coated in oil, or sun dried in trays. This means we can variously enjoy and scorn: spongy muesli raisins, gummy-candy like trail-mix raisins and resilient boxed raisins. Even when we don’t taste them, raisins present a host of meanings, ready to be parsed out and analysed, before being gobbled up in pies, pastry and paper packs.
Raisins aren’t a quotidian snack. Raisins are a complex food, evolved over millennia to display wealth, fortune and culture. We should realise this. We should realise that this seemingly ordinary food never ceases to induce awe. From the intricate folds to the intricate history, raisins capture the wonder of society, science and culture in less than a gram.
Second image: Flickr via JD Hancock