From their Biblical beginnings to the many ways they are harvested and dried, we’re gonna be raisin the roof on these shriveled grapes. You’ll learn what that’s all about and so much more on the history of raisins!
Origin of Raisins
Grape fossils date back 66 million years when Earth’s continents were one giant supercontinent. And grape cultivation – called viticulture – is nearly as old as civilization itself and began between 7,000 and 4,000 B.C. Humans probably also encountered raisins during this time. Wild grapes left on the vine to dry would have been nutritious food for us in our hunter-gatherer days.
Raisins are even mentioned in the Bible. I mean, the last thing you want is low blood sugar when you’re stoning or like crucifying someone, am I right?
Though we didn’t really start consuming raisins until we started drinking wine, which first developed around Georgia some 6000 B.C., the country, not where Trump tried to steal the presidency. The first records on file about raisins date back to Egypt and Persia around 2,000 B.C.
Around the World
Around 1,000 B.C. raisins grew in popularity around the Mediterranean when Phoenicians started colonial vineyards around Spain and Greece. About the same time, Armenians founded their own vineyards around Persia, basically Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Oh, and what do I and the oldest known winery have in common? Both Armenian. #facts
During this time, the Phoenicians and the Armenians both began trading the dried fruit. In the coming centuries, the Greeks would begin to consume large quantities of raisins, as would the Romans, because of cultural appropriation and stuff. But for all their popularity, raisins were never really exported to the rest of Europe.
But all of that changed around the 11th century, during the Crusades when trade and transportation routes were improved thanks to multiple unnecessary religious wars. Those wars created a constant demand for supplies and transportation, allowing crusaders to bring them back from the Holy Land. This increase in trade introduced Medieval England to new spices,, along with these new dried fruits, and the Mince Meat Pie was born! Once made from meat, but not so much today.
Franciscan Friars attempting to colonize the Pacific Coast brought a lot of things to Mexico and future California, such as cultural genocide, smallpox, slavery, Catholicism, and syphilis. But they also brought viticulture, which meant grapes, wine, and raisins, along with ‘em. In fact, the Golden State’s first winery was built by missionaries in 1779 at Mission San Juan Capistrano.
And by 1851, muscat raisins grown around San Diego were brought to market, kicking off California’s raisin industry.
Of course, how can we forget the popular and iconic California Raisins commercials from the 1980s, where a boy band of claymation raisins, decked out in white gloves and sunglasses, danced around most frequently to Marvin Gaye’s I Heard it Through the Grapevine. This was put out by the Golden State’s raisin advisory board and became a minor cultural phenomenon.
Why They Are Called Raisins
Ok, so raisins are dried grapes, as you probably already know. But why do we call them raisins and not just dried grapes? The word raisin is borrowed from the French word for grape…ooh la la. In French, a raisin is called raisin sec – it means dried grape.
The French got their word from the Latin word racemus, which means a bunch of grapes.
Depending on the type of grape, raisins can range from golden to black to crimson.
And did you know that grapes are technically berries? Your whole life has been a lie! Well, get this: avocados, bananas, cucumbers, eggplants, and even lemons are technically berries. You know what’s not, strawberries or raspberries. You can learn all about that, how grapes got their name, and so much more in my post on the history of grapes.
So, what makes a berry a berry, botanically speaking? A berry is a fleshy fruit without a pit produced from a single ovary on a single flower.
Raisins come from different cultivars of the species Vitis vinifera. This is also where a majority of wine grapes come from. The type of raisin depends on the grape variety, color, and size. The most common are dark raisins, usually obtained from Thompson seedless grapes, with more on that below.
Many California raisins come from Thompson Seedless grapes, which are pale green, but turn that iconic purplish brown once dried. They are the vines that all seedless grapes in California are propagated from. In fact, Thompson grapes account for about 30% of California’s grape acreage, making it our most widely planted variety.
In fact, Thompson Seedless grapes have been referred to as a three-way grape… don’t make it dirty… ok, make it dirty. They can be used for table grapes, raisins, and wine.
In 1872, Englishman and immigrant William Thompson bought grape cuttings from a nursery in Rochester, NY. They were the Lady de Coverly grape, which originated from somewhere around Turkey or Iran. He grafted the cuttings onto local rootstock, but only one survived. Life finds a way and all that shit.
Thompson and his son George exhibited that bounty from that only surviving vine at the Marysville Fair in 1875. The grapes were thin-skinned, sweet, and… seedless. Like, this was a big deal. From that sprout, the first seedless raisin grape was developed.
Prior to this, farmers almost exclusively grew muscat grapes for raisins. Remember San Diego? Well, not much has changed since. While muscats were oversized and tasty, they were a total pain in the ass to seed.
The following varieties are grown in California:
- Thompson Seedless
- Selma Pete
- Golden Seedless
- Dipped Seedless
- Zante Currant
Need a snack break? Try reaching for some raisins. A good source of natural sugars, they are a decent source of fiber, iron, and calcium. Pssst! They are also packed with antioxidants.
About 35% of all US-grown raisins are consumed from those fun, portable little boxes or simply as a bag of raisins. The remaining 65% is processed as a paste for fruit and protein bars or as a juice for sauces and marinades.
Food scientists like raisins because they are a great way to add sweetness to foods without adding straight sugar. Raisin ingredients are a great binding agent because of their stickiness.
Around two-thirds of all the raisins grown in the US are consumed here, with the remaining being exported.
Global raisin production was around 1.2 million tons for 2020 to 2021’s harvest. Three countries are the top producers of raisins globally. That is Turkey, the United States, and Iran. Turkey produces about 35,000 tons annually, with America coming in second around, 33,000 tons, and Iran at 12,000 tons.
Just to put all grape production in perspective, 71% of all grapes grown globally are used for wine, 27% are used for fruit, and 2% are used for raisins.
California Raisin Production
California’s raisin industry began as most things do… with religion and cultural genocide. Yay, humans! Franciscan Friars attempting to colonize the future Golden State brought grapes, and therefore raisins, along with them.
Commercial raisin production kicked off in 1851 around San Diego with muscat grapes. Production eventually migrated up to the San Joaquin Valley for its preferred water situation. There, the grape and raisin industry flourished, attracting immigrants from grape-growing regions around the world.
Like a bunch of Armenians! I myself am half Armenian, but my grandfather didn’t come here for the grapes, it was just some pesky genocide. Luckily genocide isn’t really a thing anymore… oh wait.
California produces all US grown raisins and they come from the state’s San Joaquin Valley, about a 60-mile radius from Fresno. Annually, the Golden State grows over 2 billion pounds of fresh grapes dedicated to raisin production. This turns out to be about 500 million pounds of raisins. A lot of f*cking raisins.
In California, there are about 145,000 acres and 2,000 growers dedicated to farming raisins, with many with vines dating back generations. These grape vines can produce raisins for up to 100 years! Comparatively, California farms about 620,000 acres of wine grapes and 130,000 acres of table grapes. A total of about 895,000 grape acres when you include our shriveled little friends.
Grapevines prefer soil that is well-drained.
The San Joaquin Valley is an agricultural paradise, but it’s low rainfall means that raisin farmers must irrigate. This is done using snowmelt water that runs off the Sierra Madre mountains to the East of the valley.
Vineyards need about 2.5 acre-feet of water each year. Or 814,627 gallons per acre.
First, cuttings are grafted onto hardier rootstock. They are then planted in rows that run east to west for optimal sun exposure. In a typical season, from December to January, farmers prune and tie up the vines to prepare them for the next growing season.
It takes 3 years for a newly planted vine to produce raisins. The vines can grow up to 50 feet long and are a great source of gossip.
Grapes need 150-180 frost-free days to develop a crop.
From February to March, vines start their annual growth cycle, first with bud break. Entire regions go from brown and drab to green and vibrant, followed by flowers come late April and fruit set just a few weeks after. By early June, clusters of grapes are well formed, verasian begins (when the clusters change color), and the grapes start to develop sugars.
Harvest begins around August and September once they reach their desired sweetness. How they are harvested and how the grapes are dried can vary. Some are dried directly in the sun, some are shade-dried from the warm air alone, then there are tray-dried grapes, mechanical drying, and vine-dried.
Traditional Hand Harvesting
Until the 1990s, nearly all raisin grapes were hand-harvested by guest laborers. This is highly skilled labor! And it’s not easy either. Seriously, support and thank the people who plant, grow, and harvest our food. Farmworkers gently hand-pick the grape clusters, laying them on paper trays between the vines to dry, which takes up to 3 weeks.
Just to put this in perspective. It takes nearly 60,000 guest laborers about 8 weeks to bring in a harvest of 400,000 tons of raisins.
Today, this traditional method accounts for somewhere between 30 to 50% of the raisin harvest.
Mechanical harvesters began to pop up in the 90s. Grape vines were heightened, and drip irrigation was added to increase productivity. These picking devices travel the rows and have “fingers” that gently pull the clusters from the vines. The grapes are then transferred onto paper trays and sun-dried, the same as the hand-harvested ones.
This method also accounts for somewhere between 30 and 50% of what is harvested.
Dried on Vine Harvesting
A third method, also developed in the 90s, is dried on the vine raisins. They are grown on a trellis system. Do you know what else grows like this, kiwi! Yah, check out my post on the history of kiwifruit. When the grapes reach maturity, the vines are cut to stop any further growth. The clusters then dry on the vine over a period of 8 weeks. For these, mechanical harvesters drive under the trellises, and with “fingers”, pull off the raisins.
This method accounts for about 25% of the raisin harvest.
Whether its people, machines, or Terminators doing the work, raisins are eventually transferred to wooden bins. This helps equalize their moisture content. The bins are stacked and covered, warming the raisins and allowing the drier ones to draw moisture from the juicier ones.
From there, they are trucked to various packing plants throughout the San Joaquin Valley.
How Golden Raisins are Made
For golden raisins, it’s a little bit different and doesn’t end with harvest. Fresh grapes are picked and then taken to a dehydrating facility. Then they are washed, placed on trays, and sent into drying tunnels that can reach up to 500 degrees F.
Before being dried, they are treated with sulfur dioxide, which, when dried, leaves the fruit a bright golden color. About 10% of California’s raisin crop ends up as golden raisins. Generally, as grapes dry, turning into raisins, their color darkens.
This is how raisins – from gold to red to black – got from Persia to California to you!