Q&A: Raisins vs sultanas vs currants

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, grape expectations…

Q: Hi AWC, I feel like raisin a topic today.

A: Are you trying to be clever by using the word “raisin”?

Q: Hmmmph. Yes.

A: What would you like to know about raisins?

Q: Well, it’s actually about THEM versus sultanas. What’s the difference? I know they’re dried grapes, but is it simply red and green grapes? And what’s the deal with currants?

A: We can certainly look at “currant affairs” too.

Q: Haha. So, they’re all dried grapes, yeah?

A: They certainly are. But it’s not as simple as the colour of a grape – just like some white wines are actually made from red grapes.

Q: Wait, seriously?

A: Yeah, the skin colour is not as important as you might think.

Q: What a lovely lesson.

A: So let’s start with “raisins” – the word literally meaning “grape” in French, where it came from. 

Q: So if you owned a French house that grows grapes, you could call it your “Raisin Maison”?

A: Very cute. So, raisins are dark in colour not due to the type of grape, but rather the fact that a grape will darken as it dries – in this case, a specific dehydrating process that takes weeks. Some claim a variety known as Muscat is required, but in truth, many different varieties are used – both green and red/black grapes.

Q: What about sultanas?

A: Again, we’re drying grapes, but this time they are more specifically from large green seedless grapes. These will give a lighter “golden” brown colour and for this reason, America doesn’t actually use the name “sultana” – instead preferring the label “golden raisins”. These almost universally use the Thompson Seedless grape and are grown typically in California. 

Q: So they’re lighter?

A: Yes, especially in America where they tend to use a preservative called sulphur dioxide. Some darker sultanas here in Australia don’t have that – often labelled “natural” sultanas.

Q: What about the word? And how does the “Sultan of Brunei” fit into all this?

A: The name “sultan” came from French in the 1500s, referring to rulers of Arabic and Muslim lands. The wife of a sultan was indeed a “sultana”, and together they ruled a “sultanate”.

Q: I have visions of a sultana reclining and being fed grapes by her servants. But is our grapey word related?

A: It certainly is. In fact, it was because at the time the best green seedless grapes were grown in a particular region in Turkey, that they named the resulting delicacy after that region’s sultan’s wife. The name appears to have caught on during the 1840s. 

Q: So fairly current then!

A: And speaking of currants – these also come from grapes, but this time an even more specific type. – the Black Corinth grape. The dried variety is sometimes referred to as the “Corinth raisin” or the “Zante currant” – after its origins to the Greek island of Zakynthos.

Q: Mama mia!

A: Here we go again. The Black Corinth is a dark grape that will give a dried fruit similar in colour to a typical raisin, but a lot smaller in size.

Q: Are these currants related to blackcurrants, red currants etc?

A: Importantly, NO. Despite the name, whenever you see reference to red “currants” – very similar to “gooseberries” – and other fruit like blackcurrants, they are completely different. They come from the Ribes berry shrub/plant and NOT a grape.

Q: So you don’t dry out red currants to make the little shrivelled raisin-like currants?

A: No. Totally different fruit. Berries vs grapes. That’s why to avoid confusion, the grape variety (the one that you DO dry out) is best called the “Zante currant”.

Q: I never knew that! So which had the name first?

A: The grape one did – which it got from its Greek location. The “th” in “Corinth” was mistaken as an “s” and gave us “Curans” – eventually “currants” – the name first appearing around 1500 as they were exported from Greece. The unrelated berry plant would be named about 80 years later, in a moment of stupidity.

Q: And what about the word “current”?

A: No relation. It came to English around 1300 from the Latin “currere” – meaning to run or move quickly – like the current you might find in a river (but eventually other things). By the 1400s, it applied to things “presently in effect”, with the terms: “current events” and “current affairs” both arriving in the late 1700s. “Currency” also comes from the same Latin base.

Q: So, to recap, raisins are many varieties of dried grapes. Sultanas are lighter, from more specific seedless green grapes. And finally, currants (aka Zante currants) are really from just one type of dried grape.

A: That’s a grape way to put it!

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