Have you ever read a British recipe only to see “sultanas” or “currants” as an ingredient? And have you ever then put that recipe down because who has “sultanas” or “currants” in the cupboard? Probably no one in the states. But do you know what they are and what you can use?
I’m pretty sure we all know what raisins are? Dried seedless grapes. The majority of our grapes are grown in California, originally from the ‘Sultanina’ grape (possibly named because of its origination in the town Soultanieh in the middle East).
In 1870 William Thompson imported this variety of grape to California for his vineyards. But from the devastating drought of 1873 William was left with nothing but shriveled up grapes on his vines. Making ‘lemonade out of lemons’ Thompson sold the dried up grapes as a “Peruvian Delicacy” and low and behold the California raisin industry was born! The Sultanina grape is now known as the Thompson grape and is the most widely planted grape in the industry.
Dried grapes (or raisins) have been around for thousands of years though. Whether it’s grapes, or plums, figs or apricots, leaving vegetables and fruits out to dry in the sun is one of the oldest methods of preserving food. More than 2,000 years B.C. wall paintings found throughout the Mediterranean showed us that dried fruits were a major part of the diet. In medieval times, dried fruits were the most common form of sweetener, far more popular (and more expensive) than honey. In Roman times, two bags of dried fruits could buy a slave.
So now that we’ve established what a raisin is, what is a sultana? Sultanas are actually nothing more than ‘raisins’, but made from the lighter green Thompson grapes. When dried, they are golden in color and tend to be a bit bigger and sweeter than our ordinary raisins. Sultanas are easy to find in the supermarket under the name “golden raisins”. In baking you can use golden raisins anytime sultanas are called for in a recipe.
Currants, on the other hand, are a completely different fruit. Much smaller in size and quite tart, whether red or black, currants are berries grown on shrubs or bushes and not grown on vines. Most often, currants are associated with only being available in Great Britain. Sun Maid sells a product called Zante Currants, which is not a currant at all but a grape, originally from Greece, and should not be confused with the currants of Great Britain.
The currants used in many British recipes are, for the most part, not available in the U.S. Commercial cultivation of these currants was banned from 1911 until 2003 because of concerns the plants could harbor a disease that had the potential to devastate American timber. Disease-resistant varieties were developed and now the ban has been lifted. For this reason, many Americans confuse Zante raisins with currants. Although I’ve never tried growing currants, I’m told they grow easily in your own backyard. So until I do, I’m probably going to use Sun Maid’s Zante Currants (raisins) in place of British currants in my baking.
Whether in baking or in savory foods, be sure to use plenty of raisins, sultanas or currants in your cooking … or just keep them around as a handy snack. A low-fat food, full of antioxidants and polyphenolic phytonutrients, dried fruits act as an anti-inflammatory and can help protect the body against free radicals. Dried fruits also contain iron, B vitamins, potassium and magnesium, which helps build red blood cells and healthy bones. Red and black currants, in particular, have four times more vitamin C than oranges and twice the antioxidants of blueberries. Great for digestion because they contain lots of fiber, these sweet, delicious dried fruits really are nature’s candy.
So the next time you’re about to make Spotted Dick, a Christmas Pudding or Bara Brith, don’t be afraid to reach for the ‘raisins’.