Black Corinthian raisins (currants)
In the 19th century, black currants were Greece’s ‘black gold’. From small black grapes grown on the south shores of the Gulf of Corinth, the dried fruit may even take its name ‘currant’ from a corruption of the word ‘Corinth’.
In ancient Greece, both the dried fruit and the vine had the same name, ‘stafida’, which is used today for raisins (sultanas) and currants alike. Curiously, both were nibbled at symposiums as an accompaniment to wine and were also used in both savoury and sweet dishes. In Byzantine times, their use in cooking continued but vast quantities were consumed during the numerous fasting periods of the Orthodox Church.
From the mid-14th century on, the Venetians imposed the systematic cultivation of black currants in the northwest Peloponnese and Zakynthos. And by the start of the 19th century currants were the main export of the island to Western Europe, while in the Peloponnese, during the Greek War of Independence (1821-1830) the fighting and pillage suspended production. Immediately after the war, cultivation of the vines recommenced and the British monopolised the market. Their enthusiasm for currants knew no bounds as they put them in cakes and puddings, like the famous ‘Spotted Dick’.
During the second half of the 19th century, black currants were to the Greek economy was what coffee is to Brazil today. It accounted for 70% of the total value of the country’s exports and was the only product that brought in such huge profits that it allowed a flourishing bourgeois class to develop, as well as a broad spectrum of related activities, jobs and professions.
The collapse of the currant trade in the crisis of 1893 caused irreparable damage not only to the local economy but to the country as a whole. Today cultivation of the black currant is confined to mountainous and semi-mountainous areas in the northwest Peloponnese, while the plains have been taken over by citrus orchards, which need the milder climate. The Vostitsa variety of currant has been awarded PDO status and is considered the highest quality; most of these currants are grown in Aigialeia.
The production cycle of the currants is as follows: Digging the soil at the end of winter, pruning in February, fertilising with manure in March, dusting with pesticides in spring, cincturing the trunks at the end of spring at the end of spring to produce larger fruit, trimming the tips in June and finally, before the harvest, clearing the flat places where the grapes are spread out to dry.
The fruit of the Corinthian currant is usually picked in August and laid on the ‘threshing floors’, specially prepared places located near the vines. Then follows the process of drying in the sun and, finally, the currants are sieved through a machine that separates the large from the smaller fruit and discards any extraneous substances – leaves, stones, earth, etc. The process is called ‘makenarisma’ after the ‘makina’ or sieve. Most of the currant crop in the Peloponnese is handled by the Agricultural Cooperatives Union of Aigio.