A History of Seedless Grapes
01 January 2017
Once upon a time all grapes had seeds.
These seeded grapes were used for raisins but the seeds needed to be removed. To reduce expenses many people did this themselves by popping the seeds out through the grape's skin. It was a tedious job. Kitchen gadgets were designed to aid this process, but another method was commonly used. People would heat the grapes in water to plump them up and soften the skin before cutting them open and deseeding by hand. However, bringing the fruit’s sugar to the surface during the process made for a very sweet, and exceptionally sticky, raisin.
In the 1870's vineyard owner William Thompson imported a different seedless grape cutting which he purchased from Almira & Barry nursery in New York. He called the grape variety ‘Thompson’s Seedless.’
The main feature of the Thompson grape was that it was seedless. However, they also had a high sugar content, ripened early, were a good size and transported well. It was a white (pale green) grape, also referred to as the sultanina. This ‘new’ grape had great commercial potential for wine-making and tasty table grapes, and it also had the right attributes for making good raisins.
The Thompson’s Seedless was soon the cornerstone of California’s lucrative grape industry. Over two million grape plant cuttings were being purchased by growers all over California within twenty years of Thompson planting that first cutting.
Thompson's Seedless grapes were the first variety that was commercialised without seeds. The drawback is that they are smaller than seeded varieties, but the flavour is better due to the very high sugar content.
The sultana raisins produced from these grapes are small and sweet, and have a golden colour. Nowadays the majority of raisins, including those with the typical dark brown colour, are made from the sultana grape, the Thompson's Seedless.
Sultanas are usually soaked in a solution of water, potassium carbonate, and vegetable oil to speed up the drying process. However, Thompson raisins are not treated with this solution - they are dried naturally, which means they require more drying time. This often means they are a darker colour than sultanas.
When Ian Smith brought the first seedless grapes to the UK in the mid 1980s, it was a unique idea that people weren't sure about. 30 years later, they have completely taken over the grape market.
Today, the seedless varieties have overtaken seeded varieties. After white seedless grapes (Thompson's) become popular, red seedless grapes were developed. And now we have black seedless grapes, too.
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