History of Raisins and Dried Fruit
Who says history is a dry subject?
Read all about the fascinating history of raisins and dried fruits.
Leaving fruits out to dry in the sun and air is one of the oldest methods of preserving food-whether it's turning grapes into raisins, or fresh figs, dates, apricots, and plums into their dried counterparts. Raisins and dried fruits are simple, wholesome foods, grown by nature and "made" by men and women basically the same way for thousands of years - long before artificial, frozen, canned, or processed foods.
People have enjoyed raisins since the earliest days of civilization. The early Phoenicians and Egyptians were responsible for expanding the popularity of raisins throughout the western world. Due to their long-term storability and ease of transport, raisins traveled with Christopher Columbus, tickled George Washington's palate at Mount Vernon, helped fuel Robert E. Peary's conquest of the North Pole in 1908, and accompanied astronaut Scott Carpenter in outer space in 1962.
Learn fun facts about raisins and dried fruits through the ages in the following timeline.
35,000,000 BC - Vitis sezonnensis! It's not a sneeze but rather the botanical name of the earliest known grape vine, which flourishes in the southern part of the French region. The vine later evolves into Vitis vinifera, today's most commonly grown variety.
6000 BC - Around this time, it's believed that grape cultivation begins in Transcaucasia (present-day countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia). It's the flowering of plum and prune production as well. People seem to be discovering that dried fruits have a more intense flavor and sweetness than their fresh counterparts.
4000 BC - Grape cultivation expands to the Tigris-Euphrates region (present-day Iraq) about this time. Grapes join other fruits grown in the neighborhood that are suitable for drying, such as the fig and date palm. (The palm is native to the region but flourishes in Africa and Arabia as well.)
2440 BC - Grape cultivation begins in the Egyptian delta region at this time, memorialized in temple carvings, mosaics, and paintings.
2000 BC - Bon appetit! Grapes are consumed at home during the Bronze Age, as evidenced by seeds found in dwelling ruins in what is now Switzerland.
1700 BC - "The Epic of Gilgamesh," a juicy poem referencing grapes and vineyards in ancient Sumeria and also commemorating the adventures of the historical King of Uruk, appears at this time. Today it is regarded as the oldest known written story on earth.
1500 BC - Throughout India, Persia, and Arabia, people expand their knowledge of dried fruits, which make their appearance in both kitchens and folklore, including the famous story collection.
900 BC - A Roman soldier or a Phoenician trader brings a new grape variety through Italy to Iberia and North Africa. It is the Muscat, which probably originated in Greece and later becomes popular throughout Roman France and Germany.
218-203 BC - One of the greatest military leaders in history, Carthaginian general Hannibal catches the Romans off guard during the Second Punic War by crossing the Alps with troops fuelled by none other than raisins!
154 BC - Ancient Rome can't get enough raisins. Raisins are used variously as rewards in athletic competitions, payment for taxes, a medical cure-all, and barter currency. Romans feast on raisins in Bacchanalian proportions.
100 - Great gourmand Marcus Gavius Apicius is the first author in the ancient world to write a cookbook. He includes recipes for a small fish soufflé and fried veal, both with raisins as a key ingredient.
1095-1291 - Good as gold. During the Crusades trade between Europe and other parts of the world increases dramatically. Among the foodstuffs sought? Raisins, of course.
1300 - As the European raisin trade flourishes, tasty dishes such as "pottage" and "frumenty" (meats or fish combined with raisins and currants) become popular throughout the continent.
1374 - Raisin inflation! Raisin prices in England jump to an unheard-of two pence and three farthings per pound.
1400 - Raisin bread abounds. In Germany, it's Christmas bread called stollen. In Italy, panettone. And in Russia, Easter bread laced with raisins is called kulich.
1492 - Seafarers including Christopher Columbus discover that raisins are the perfect accompaniment for voyages across the high seas, since they keep well for long periods of time. Raisins are among the rations of those aboard the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
1513 - The Spanish begin importing trees that bear fruit suitable for drying into the West Indies. Later, fruit trees spread into Mexico and the American Southwest.
1595 - Now bring us some figgy pudding. By adding breadcrumbs, spirits, and eggs to the raisins and other dried fruits in "frumenty," the traditional English "plum pudding" is born. Farther south, Spain perfects the making of dry and sweet wines from raisins.
1615 - Cervantes pens Part II of Don Quixote, one of the earliest written novels in a modern European language (Spanish.) In it, he refers to paying an Arabic translator in raisins.
1683 - Merry fruitcake! Austrians encounter the bounty of Middle Eastern fruit when the Turks overrun Vienna. To celebrate their survival, the Viennese serve German turban cake, or "gugelhupf," with a filling of raisins, lemon and orange peel, almonds, and spices, on Christmas morning.
1736 - Let them eat cake. Polish King Stanislas Lesczynska, also known as the king without a kingdom, is exiled to France. There, he creates the "baba," a dessert bread featuring raisins.
1754 - George Washington begins his long residence at Mount Vernon, where raisins are a staple at the dinner table. His wife Martha prepares a "plumb broth" made of marrow bones, bread, sugar, raisins, and currants. Her husband proclaims it "the greatest success achieved by Mrs. Washington since our marriage."
1800 - The kitchen is the hub of the American and British household, and books with instructions for cooking impart valuable information. Cookbooks advocate the inclusion of raisins in various dishes. In sunny California's mission chain, fruit production proliferates.
1838 - The dawn of commercialization. Former Kentucky trapper William Wolfskill emigrates to California, where he plants the first vineyard of table grapes near Los Angeles. He ships his grapes to Northern California gold miners for the price of one "bit" (twelve-and-a-half cents) per vine.
1872 - Vineyardist William Thompson of Sutter County, California, imports a Sultanina seedless grape cutting from the Almira & Barry Nursery of Rochester, New York. His prescience is rewarded when the Sultanina is his only vine to survive sudden winter floods.
1873 - Happy accident. Commercial propagation of William Thompson's seedless grapes begins in California. In Fresno County a number of bunches dry by accident, creating the first commercial raisin crop. It is transported to San Francisco and sold as a "Peruvian delicacy."
1875 - Thompson enters his Sultanina grapes into a local agricultural competition. Not knowing their formal name, he dubs them "Thompson seedless." The moniker sticks, and Thompson seedless grapes become the basis of California's grape and raisin industry. Thin-skinned, without seeds, and loaded with flavor, they make the best raisins, the easiest.
1880 - At $3-to-$20 an acre, cheap land and an arid climate set the stage for widespread California raisin production in the areas east of Los Angeles and in the San Joaquin Valley. The Valley grows to be the dominant production area for the entire United States.
1881 - The first Armenians arrive in Fresno County, bringing with them long-held expertise in raisin production.
1900 - Raisin production spreads widely outside of the Mediterranean and California, all the way to Australia and Chile.
1900-1904 - Robert Falcon Scott sets off on his expeditions to the South Polar regions. He includes raisins in his provisions.
1908-1909 - During Robert E. Peary's successful conquest of the North Pole, pemmican (the Native American concoction of dried meat, berries, and fat) along with raisins helps to sustain the party.
1962 - Astronaut Scott Carpenter bites into a raisin-filled, granola-type confection, thus becoming the first person to carry and consume raisins in outer space.
Today - Say what? Polyphenolic chemical compounds! Found in high concentration in grapes and wine, they're among the most talked-about dietary ingredients these days. Believed to promote good health since as far back as Roman times, polyphenolic compounds continue to be investigated by modern researchers looking into their antioxidant and other health properties.