Happy Raisin Christmas and a Sultana New Year

OK. So it’s the time when all the old fruitcake jokes are trotted out. Journalists desperate for Christmas stories repeat Johnny Carson’s quip. “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to one another.”


Fruitcake. Wikimedia

No one likes fruitcake, at least in the United States, understandable in light of all the sickly crystallized fruits they are apt to contain. Mincemeat pies no longer have pride of place as they once did. And Christmas (plum) pudding is a weird English peculiarity.

So what’s the problem?

Much of it is the dried fruit, I think.  The raisins (golden raisin in the US), sultanas (golden raisins in the US), and currants (no they don’t taste the same, see this video, and then test for yourself), the dried grapes, in short, don’t fit into modern ways of eating.

How many families have a box of raisins in the pantry, even though of the dried fruits they are the most popular, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center funded by the USDA? If they are eaten at all they are largely relegated to a supporting role in trail mix or cereal, or to tiny packets to put in packed lunches.  And for those who really, really don’t like raisins, there’s a page on Facebook page where they can vent their feelings.

Today Americans and Europeans like liquidy, not dry grapes. Americans now get through nearly eight pounds of fresh grapes person per year, up from about three pounds in 1970. Children get grape juice and slippery grape jelly. And then there’s wine, which has never been more prestigious, more available, and more analyzed and eulogized.

Yet for centuries, dried grapes were loved and desired.  Sixty percent sugar by weight, they, like sugar, were part of the spice trade. In breads and buns for special occasions, they offered a nugget of concentrated sweetness. In Turkish pilafs, North African cous cous, Catalan canelones, and many other dishes, including mincemeat.  They made for a nugget of sweetness in breads and buns for special occasions.

A traditional currant bun. Wikimedia

A traditional currant bun. Wikimedia

Now, at least in the United States, the old heavy sweet dishes that could support dried grapes have been replaced by light airy ones.  Butter cakes do not hold dried grapes in suspension.  And people serve big uniformly sweet slices not little slivers with the old nugget of sweetness. It’s a whole new way of consuming the sweet, a way that depends on cheap sugar.

So although I don’t normally do single ingredient (commodity) pieces, for Christmas this year I thought I’d poke about a bit into the past and present of dried grapes, concentrating on the processing and trade rather than the uses in the kitchen. It fits nicely with my interest in drying foods and urbanization. How could traditional food processing, with its demands on space, and the smells and flies that it generates, fit with the rise of cities?

Let’s start with that Sun-Maid raisin packet.   A raisin industry had grown up around Fresno, California where it still flourishes. There really were Sun-Maid raisin girls.

Sun-Maid raisin girls at the Panama Pacific Exposition

Sun-Maid raisin girls at the Panama-Pacific Exposition (1915) officially to celebrate the opening of the canal but also to announce San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake.

The following year, the Sun-Maid raisin girl, with her tray of raisins, appeared on the raisin box.

Sun-Maid raisin girl

The original Sun-Maid raisin box, 1916. The girl was Lorraine Collett Peterson

I’d never given the term Sun-Maid a moment’s thought, nor realized that it was a play on words (Sun-Made).  Nor had I thought about the trays before but, it turns out, trays have been the commonest way to dry raisins in California.

Raisins Drying in the San Joaquim Valley of California.  From James Franklin Chamberlain, How We Are Fed (1903)

Raisins Drying in the San Joaquim Valley of California. From James Franklin Chamberlain, How We Are Fed (1903)

By 1895, 30,000 tons of raisins were being sun-dried there.  It was the most labor-intensive of all agricultural activities, apparently, and remained so until very recently when machinery has begun to replace that labor.

Trays for grape drying in California

Grape workers using trays to distribute drying grapes. Orange County Historical Society

In his report to Congress, the head of the recently formed Weather Bureau, under the bailiwick of the Department of Agriculture cited the fact that none had been damaged by rain as one more justification for the Bureau’s existence.

In 1890, Gustavus Eisen predicted in The Raisin Industry that dehydrators would take over from sun drying.  In fact sun drying continues to be used.

Grapes drying in the San Joaquim Valley, 2005. Wikimedia

Grapes drying in the San Joaquim Valley, 2005. CFMAS.

Grape drying was not just old but ancient when the US industry started. The Spanish had introduced grapes (and doubtless grape drying) to California.

In Spain, particularly Valencia, specialized buildings, riurau, were built to protect the drying mats from rain.  One day I hope to go along Spain’s tourist raisin route.

Grape drying riurau in Valencia

Arches of the riurau constructed in Valencia, Spain to protect the mats on which raisins for export were dried.

Grapes were (and are) dried across the Mediterranean.  In Italy (as in many other places), “straw” wine is made from dried vespaiola grapes.

Grapes drying to make wine in Italy

Vespaiola grapes drying in Italy. 2008. Fabio Ingrosso.

And places such as India, not normally associated with grape growing have big industries.

Indian grape drying

Grapes drying in India. Aditya Corporation

Turkey and the US dominate world raisin production.

Drying grapes in Turkey

Men turning drying grapes in Turkey

And by now you are probably wondering, with all these raisins drying in the open air, aren’t there problems beyond rain like flies, dust, and so on. Indeed there are and if you are interested just google (or google books)  the many books on raisin technology published in the last hundred years, to look at all the ways of dealing with these problems.

We, though, will continue our tour.  Afghanistan is among the top ten raisin producers.  And here buildings protect the drying mats from dust and from moisture.

Securing a grape drying house in Afghanistan

A grape drying house in Afghanistan, 2011. (The American soldier is securing the building). Wikimedia.

Of all the long history of grape drying, perhaps the most poignant spot is Turfan (Turpan), one of the lowest-lying spots on earth, with minimal rainfall and temperatures that can reach 128 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.

Turfan (Turpan), Xinjiang, China, on the Silk Roads.

Turfan (Turpan), Xinjiang, China, on the Silk Roads.

On the outskirts of the town, grape drying houses dominate the landscape.

Distant view of Turpan grape drying houses

Grape drying houses on the outskirts of Turpan, Xinyiang, China (2004). Peter Morgan.

In that hostile landscape you wouldn’t think any fruit could grow.  The secret is in an Iranian-style underground irrigation system built a century or so B.C. that brings water from the nearby mountains to the oasis.  The water made this an important stop on the Silk Roads.  It is still used to supply the town today.

Streets shaded by vines in Turfan

Grape-vine shaded streets in Turfan

Turfan and its grapes have seen much history pass their way. The Manichaeans, rivals of the early Christians, were strong here, their Elect whose diet consisted of fragrant fruits and colorful vegetables, presumably happy with the seedless grapes. Caravans carried the “mare nipple” grapes packed in snow in lead boxes to the Emperor of China in Chang ‘An.  Raisins were exported to China and to India. Marco Polo passed through. Today it is becoming a tourist destination.

Meanwhile the raisins are still dried in chunche, as the raisin drying houses are called.

Raisin drying house in Turpan

Raisins in a drying house in Turpan

And the chunche continue to stand guard around the town.

Houses for drying raisins, Xinyiang

Raisin drying houses (chunche), Turfan, China

So, perhaps give the raisin a second thought.  And a happy sultana New Year to all my readers.

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13 thoughts on “Happy Raisin Christmas and a Sultana New Year

  1. Jacqui

    Thank Rachel, Australia still supports a sultana grape industry :) My favourite Xmas pudding recipe has no sugar – its rich sweetness is imparted from all the dried fruit. And its deep colour.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Jacqui, I was so tempted to include some Australian photos but the essay was getting longer and longer as it was. My mincemeat recipe has no sugar so we are twinned in this.

  2. Adam Balic

    Happy Christmas Rachel.

    Poor cooking and bad recipes made an impact on changing tastes too, I like fruit cake, but not all fruit cake are equal, some are quite nasty.

    Dried fruits vary hugely in quality and as they are used less and less in cooking there is a decreasing appreciation of this.

    Christmas pudding et al., may be special occasion dishes still, but they are no longer special treats for many. Christmas pudding is offered as a traditional item in addition to the desserts that people actually like in many cases. This year I am going traditional and offering at least three pudding that people will not like.

    It will be interesting to see how long Christmas pudding can survive in this state.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Adam, I was wondering about you. Yes, agreed, some fruit cakes are horrid. Yes,agreed, dried fruits vary greatly in quality. And I think it’s more than that they are used less and less, it’s that we have so very, very many ingredients now that we have little discrimination about quality. And yes, agreed, Christmas pudding (like many traditional dishes) is not a special treat. Happy Christmas to all of you.

  3. Gary Gillman

    Excellent survey and analytics. I was reminded of Elizabeth David’s plaint that raisins in Greece were too soft and tender to make proper plum pudding. This was during the war and she took on the job at the request of a local Greek friend. (Other issues were hacking suet from the bone and the local brandy which (this from memory) smelled like Brilliantine). It is one of her best passages amongst of course a wealth to choose from, and in a sense the problems she had are now everywhere since apart from the ubiquity of fresh grapes even the dried are half-fresh really due to better processing and faster shipping. A boon when eating them as such but cooking with them does not always produce the old results.

    At the same time, some recipes will always be better than others. James Beard gave his mother’s recipe for white fruitcake which he said was always a hit. It is in his “Prejudices” book which is a memoir and one of his best books.

    Happy New Year from Toronto.


    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Gary, I agree that Prejudices is one of James Beard’s best books. I’m less sure about Elizabeth David on how to make Christmas pudding though I love that story. I not sure she grew up in a household where she would have learned much about Christmas pudding making. Just my two cents worth.

  4. Vikram

    Very interesting and concisely written blog, and I am looking forward to reading your book soon. Dried fruits are still seen as desirable and energy giving in India, where I’m writing this from, though I have noticed that in the big dried fruit and nut boxes given on Diwali, it is the raisins and apricots that are last to be eaten.

    But dried fruits are getting something of a new lease on life with “sugar free” sweets that are being concocted by professional sweetmakers for the rapidly increasing numbers of Indians with diabetes. Many sweetmakers now often dried fruit versions of regular Indian sweets, with somewhat mixed results as far as a taste goes and I have my suspicions about their real health values, but people buy them.

    I wish it was easier to get the really good, moist Afghan raisins that I tried for the first time at Slow Foods in Turin some years back and have occasionally found in dried fruit shops here. This is a link to a column I wrote on them:


    happy new year,


    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Loved your blog. I had such raisins in Argentina and they were a revelation. And thanks for reminding me that Helen Saberi discusses raisins in her lovely book.


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