In Ancient Greece they called raisin (stafida) the dried fruit of “stafidampelos” and the raisin itself “stafidampelo”. Raisins accompanied the wine in symposiums and were also used in cooking and sweets. In the Byzantine times they continued to use it for cooking but also large quantities were consumed by the Christians during the Lent. It was the Venetians who started the production of raisins first in the Peloponnese and later in the islands of the Ionian Sea.
The systematic cultivation of black currant started in the mid 14th century first in Northwestern Peloponnese (Corinthia, Ilia, Achaia) and later in the early 16th century it spread to the islands of the Ionian Sea (Cephalonia, Zakynthos). In the early 19th century raisins are the top export product of Zakynthos to Europe while in Peloponnese, war and destruction suspended its production. Right after the war of independence (1830), the vines were cultivated again but this time with raisins not grapes. The English had the monopoly of exploiting the raisins as they used them in their cakes and puddings.
During the second half of the 19th century the Corinthian currant was the number one exported product and it was for the Greek economy what coffee is to Brazil.
This product, at some point, covered 50% – 70% of the total exports of the country and the farmers of northwestern Peloponnese expanded the vines to such an extent that all other cultivations were very limited. Vines spread from the coast up to mountain slopes, 1000m above sea level.
Raisins were the only profitable product and created a wealthy class of merchants, which had great impact on the financial and social life of the country. Around the trade of raisins and under the control of the big merchants a whole network of activities was created as a whole range of jobs was requited. From the small producer to the large one, the merchant in a village, to the medium town and the big merchant, the customs officers, bankers, brokers, lawyers, insurance brokers and also those who loaded the product, sailed the barges and the workers who made the crates.
A new world lives and grows, “the society of raisin”. In large urban centers, such as Patras with its port that organizes the production and controls the exports, Pyrgos (the first railway line in Greece joined Pyrgos to Katakolon and had to do with the transfer of raisins), Aegio and in villages and smaller towns like Ksylokastro, Lehena, Gargaliani or Filiatra the whole life and the activities of the people are determined by raisins.
The improvement in the standard of living in cosmopolitan Patras and the wealthy villages is obvious: The “Acropolis” newspaper writes in 1894 about the residents of Pyrgos: “They turned their homes into small palaces in terms of luxury and furniture. Furniture that not even Mr. Syggros dreamt for his mansion”.
Not only “the world of raisin” depended on raisins but the whole Greek economy since international demand and the international exchange rate played a major role in setting its price. New markets and increase in sales brought huge profits, reduction in price and demand had a very big financial impact. The best period was in 1879 when France had to produce wine from raisins because its vines were hit by phylloxera and turned to Corinthian raisins.
However, the crisis of 1893 was deep with serious financial, political and social consequences. Society in its entirety felt its impact and whole populations were driven to despair. The “problem of raisins” had reached its peak. Raisin producing populations with constant struggle, demonstrations appeals to the Parliament and the King managed to secure some favorable settlements such as the retaining of raisins (separation of raisins according to quality and export of the best).
The State is forced to intervene; the positive results were reduced, though, because of the complexity of the interests of the interested parties. Because of conflicting interests, the differences separating raisin producing populations – the general measures taken to protect raisins were unfair to regions that produced better quality raisins – were so big that it can be said that the country went through a “Second Peloponnesian War”.
The collapse of the trade of raisins dealt an irreparable blow to the local economy and society. More than 350.000 people from these areas emigrated between 1890 and 1915, mostly to America.
The Independent Raisin Organization was founded in August 1925. Its objective was to protect the cultivation and trade of Corinthian raisins. The State tries to find solutions to the raisin problem through the Greek market and the industrial processing of raisins. Factories, wineries and distilleries were established that can still be seen today reminding us that raisins marked the region and its people for more than one hundred years.
In our days, cultivation has been limited to the semi-mountainous and mountainous areas while on the plain they cultivate citrus fruit which need a more temperate climate. The main categories, according to quality are: “Vostizza” or “Gulf” and “Provincial”. The “Vostizza” was registered as Protected Designation of Origin product in 1993 and is considered to be the top quality Corinthian raisin for its aroma and unique flavor.
The Agricultural Co-operatives Union of Aeghion
The Agricultural Cooperatives Union of Aeghion was established in 1935 in Aeghio, Achaia and is the largest exporter of the Corinthian “Vostizza” currants.
It consists of 59 agricultural cooperatives and has a total of 6000 active members. The Union operates at its own modern installations of 24.7 acres which include currants factories, and factories for packing citrus fruits and oil.
“In 1980 Greece produced 70.000 tons of black currants. That was the highest limit of the European Union (only Greece produced black currants). Today Greek production has been reduced to 25.000 tons from the cultivation of about 29,000 acres. A third of this is in Aeghialia and every year the Union handles more than 80% of the production of the wider region and 60% of the currants of the wider Peloponnese region. The most impressive thing is that 95% of the production, i.e. about 10.000 tons of high quality Corinthian currants is exported abroad in 10 kilo packaging. The top customers are England, Holland, France, Australia and Russia in that order.
Since 1980, the Cooperative is the exclusive supplier of Mark’s and Spencer’s and its satellite companies. The only competitor of the Corinthian currant, which holds the 70% of world production (Australia and the USA are the others) is sultana, which has its own market share as it is cheaper. In Greece it is produced in Crete, around 10.000 tons, but the major competitor is Turkey with 300.000 tons annually”.
Currants, a product that expressed wealth and prosperity but also misery when during the occupation people lived on it, is trying today to re-enter our lives as a product of high nutritional value and exceptional taste.