Raisins in Ancient times. The word raisin is from the Latin word racemus which means a cluster of grapes or berries.
History indicates that raisins were discovered for the first time by accident when they were found in the dried form on vines as early as 2000 BC. Wall paintings from ancient times show that dried fruits were consumed and used as decorations in the Mediterranean regions of Europe. Historians tell us the ancient Phoenicians and Armenians took the first steps in perfecting viticulture, the process of grape growing and selection.
Between 120-900 BC, the Phoenicians started colonial vineyards in the areas of Malaga and Valencia (Spain), and in Corinth (Greece). About this same time, the Armenians founded their vineyards in Persia (Turkey, Iran, Iraq). These bountiful growing areas had the perfect climate for making raisins and were also close to Greece and Rome, the first markets for raisins. Muscat raisins, oversized with seeds and a fruity full flavor, were the primary crop in Malaga and Valencia. Currants, tiny seedless, tangy raisins were planted in Corinth, Greece, where historians believe they got their name.
The Phoenicians and Armenians then began to trade raisins with the Greeks and the Romans who consumed them in large quantities. As the popularity of the raisins grew, so did their value. They were given as prizes in sporting events, used as barter to trade, and used as a cure for what ails you. Ancient physicians prescribed raisins as potions that could cure everything from mushroom poisoning to old age. Emperor Augustus feasted on small birds stuffed with raisins. Even Hannibal had raisins in his troops’ rations when he crossed the Alps.
For all their popularity, though, raisins were not exported to the rest of Europe. Shipping methods were too poor to maintain the quality of the raisins for long travel. All of that changed in the 11th century. Knights returning from the crusades brought raisins back to Europe with them. They had sampled the dried fruit during their travels through the Mediterranean and Persia. When the knights went home and began to crave raisins, a huge demand was created. Fortunately, packing and shipping techniques had improved enough for raisins to be sent all over Northern Europe.
By the middle of the 14th century, currants and raisins were an important part of English cuisine. In 1374, prices in England skyrocketed to two pence and three farthings per pounds, which was very expensive at that time.
After a period of time, viticulture spread to France and Germany. Even the English tried to grow currants in the 16th century – but realized their climate was too cold for drying raisins.
Grapes and raisins had become an important part of European cuisine by the time European nations started to colonize the Americas. In Spain, where viticulture had been perfected, grapes were being used to make products such as dry table wine, sweet dessert wines and Muscat raisins. It was only natural that when the conquistadors colonized Mexico, wine and raisins were soon to follow.
18th Century –The Birth of California Raisin Country
Spain’s Queen Isabella sent missionaries to Mexico to teach natives about religion. While they were preaching and teaching, missionaries also passed on their knowledge of viticulture. They used grapes for sacramental wines and also grew Muscat grapes for raisins.
By the 18th century, the Franciscan fathers had settled as far north as present-day Sonoma, California. But, when Spain turned power over to the colonial government of Mexico in 1834, the mission system began its decline. Viticulture – and its strong influence on California agriculture – was one of the mission’s enduring legacies.
1851 – A marketable muscat for raisins, the Egyptian Muscat, was grown near San Diego. Since the area didn’t have sufficient water supply, farmers moved to the San Joaquin (wah keen) Valley which has a mild climate and extensive irrigation system perfect for the art of viticulture.
1873 – Legend says California’s first raisin crop was grown by nature, not farmers. A massive heat wave hit the valley before harvest, and most of the grapes dried on the vine before farmers could pick them.
1876 – English immigrant William Thompson grew a seedless grape variety that was thin-skinned, seedless, sweet and tasty.
Late 1800s – Armenians descended from the first founders of vineyards in Persia began settling in the San Joaquin Valley. The area now supplies raisins for nearly half the world, making it the largest producer anywhere.
Today, of 204,191 acres of raisin grapes grown in California, 184,789 acres are Thompson Seedless (90%). See http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/California/index.asp