Standing in a vineyard in California with the fierce afternoon sun glaring down it's not difficult to see why this part of the world has become famous for the wine it produces. The hot and dry inland climate of California, as well as its cooler coastal regions, allows for the growing of the some of the world's best quality grapes. Yet grapes from this particular vineyard are not destined for the wine bottle. This is Fresno. This is raisin country.
Californian-grown grapes make for pretty good quality raisins, as it turns out. In Fresno -- which sits inland between San Francisco and Los Angeles -- and in particular the San Joaquin Valley, where the majority of the state's raisins are grown, the weather is ideal for raisin production. Temperatures regularly exceed the hundred mark and summer rain is scarce, creating perfect conditions for the natural drying process for the grapes.
In California raisins are big business. So big, in fact, that one of its towns is named after them. The state is far and away the world's biggest raisin producer, producing on average 350,000t a year -- a whopping 80% of total global production.
There are some 4,500 raisin growers in California, according to the Raisin Administrative Committee (RAC), the organisation which supports the development of the entire California raisin industry. Around 3,000 are mainly independent growers serving around 20 packers while Sun Maid Growers of California forms the largest grower co-operative with approximately 1,500 growers. Spanning 170 acres and 700 employees Sun Maid's Kingsburg plant is the largest dried fruit facility in the world, producing upwards of 500m packs of raisins each year.
Yet despite such a big business, the raisin industry is not cut and dried. The smiling face of the Sun Maid girl, which has adorned the company's packs since 1915, disguises what could be tough times ahead for Sun Maid and the rest of the raisin industry.
The predicament is that the grapes the raisin industry uses -- Thompson white seedless -- are the same as those grown by the large nearby wineries, such as Ernst & Julio Gallo. While this demonstrates the high quality of grapes used for California raisins, it has also created a buying war between the two industries -- one which the wineries are better placed to win.
Booming demand for high quality, low-cost Californian wines has upped the price wineries such as Gallo are prepared to pay for Thompson seedless and as a result many would-be raisin growers have been enticed in to selling to the wine trade. Two years ago the field price for grapes was $90 (£50) a tonne, but wineries are now outbidding the raisin packers by offering closer to $200 (£112) a tonne.
Sun Maid says that last year's US raisin crop was 300,000t -- some 50,000t below the average. This year it predicts this figure will drop to just over 200,000t, the lowest crop for the past 20 years, as more grape growers make lucrative deals with the wineries.
However, the raisin industry is on the offensive, and the RAC is attempting to raise the value of raisins as a commodity. As an ingredient, the tiny dark shrivelled fruit does more than provide the 'acne' in a spotted dick or make the basis for a fruit cake, is its message.
For example, California raisins offer companies a viable alternative to refined sugars and sweeteners, says Peter Meadows, the RAC's UK marketing director. They also contain a source of iron, potassium, selenium and vitamins A and B, are rich in antioxidants and have been shown to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
In the current climate, where manufacturers are under pressure to not only lower the refined sugar content of their products but also raise their nutritional profile, Meadows says raisins could provide the solution. "Companies using sweeteners in their products should consider using raisins instead," he says. "They raise the nutrient profile of a product and enable companies to charge that little bit extra."
In the UK we eat about 8,000t of California raisins in retail packs either through Sun Maid's ubiquitous red boxes or supermarket own-label. A further 16,500t is consumed as ingredients, predominantly in bakery, cereal and confectionery items.
So why specifically use California raisins? Richard Bruno, vice president of licensing at Sun Maid, says the difference is in the drying process. California raisins take 24 days to dry, spread out on paper trays and left on the ground to bake naturally in the hot Californian sun. The majority of raisins and sultanas (the European and Asian equivalent of a raisin) from countries such as Iran and Turkey, on the other hand, are dried much quicker, either mechanically or in each other's shade. This not only accounts for the darker colour of California raisins but for their more pronounced taste and texture.
California is also one of the few places to produce a raisin paste and concentrate, says Meadows, both of which are useful in food manufacture. As well as adding sweetness, raisin in a pureed or concentrate form doubles as a binder and fat replacer and as a mould inhibitor to lengthen shelf-life.
Kitchen Range Foods is the latest company to acknowledge the benefits of California raisins, and has developed a California raisin mini doughnut and fruit dip. An unnamed cereal firm is also working specifically with Californian raisins in the development of a coating that prevents moisture migration to the cereal.
"Dry cereal ingredients like oats can draw water out of the raisin, so the end product looks like bullets," says Meadows. He adds that the process, which is being kept secret by the company, has been found to only work with California raisins because of the thick skins of the Thompson grapes.
Yet this is just the start and the RAC is stepping up its involvement with UK manufacturers to identify the potential for California raisins to be used in more diverse new product development (NPD) projects.
Meadows says the RAC is doing what Americans call 'moving the needle', by turning its attention towards categories which are traditionally unchartered territory for raisins. "We are not looking at using raisins for just salads or bakery," he says. "Why be on one or two aisles [in the supermarket] when you can be on 20?"
It may be a bold notion, but raisins have already done some pretty impressive aisle jumping. Fine Raisin Beer, from Liverpool-based Cains brewery is one such product. The RAC worked with Cains to promote the beer, which is infused with Californian raisins, helping the drink secure a listing in Tesco. Sauce and gravy manufacturers are also using raisin paste to sweeten their products.
Over in California, raisin growers and packers are also experimenting for both the US and UK markets. Sun Maid, for example, markets an extra moist baking raisin that has a moisture content of 24-28%, compared with 17% for a typical raisin, for use in premium cakes and muffins.
California-based Victor Packing, which produces and packs raisins, has gone one stage further with the development of fruit flavoured raisins called Berry Blasters, to bring the humble raisin into the 21st century. Executive vice president Steve Troehler says the product was created to appeal to children and is just starting to take off. "Many children don't like raisins, but they like these," he says.
Berry Blasters, which are sold in 21g packs for retail and as a bulk ingredient, are available in four flavours -- Sour Cherry, Strawberry, Blueberry and Raspberry -- and use natural fruit flavours to retain the raisin's healthy profile.
An advantage of flavoured raisins for NPD teams is that they are substantially cheaper alternatives to more in vogue fruits such as blueberries and cranberries yet have similar healthy attributes. Their uptake over here is already under way with bakery company Soreen using the raspberry and blueberry raisins in its Summer Fruits Loaf.
The RAC also recently held its first World Culinary Challenge in Las Vegas, to promote the varied use of raisins in products for foodservice. Chefs from eight countries competed in the event, using raisins for such things as stuffings, sauces and desserts.
Foodservice group Compass, whose chefs won in both the fine dining and dessert categories, is one company looking to incorporate Californian raisins into more of its recipes. Executive development chef at Compass Omero Gallucci says because of their versatility, raisins could well become a staple ingredient in a whole variety of foods.
"People are starting to use raisins a lot more in hot food, as well as cakes and pastries because they are very nutritious and versatile and bring flavour and texture to foods," says Gallucci. "California raisins also hold their shape well when cooked."
Both Marks & Spencer and Nestlé are sole buyers of Californian-grown raisins, in Nestlé's case because their more pronounced wrinkles allows for chocolate to adhere to them very easily. Meadows hopes many more companies will follow their lead and says the RAC will provide promotional support for companies wanting to use California raisins in their products.
"Raisins are an undervalued commodity but they should be seen as a value-added ingredients," he says. "We are here to help grow the market for California raisins." The wineries had better watch out. FM