Raisins with an Aussie Accent!
By NATALIA VIGNOLA
My next order of business in the land of relentless heat and leaping marsupials was to take a drive through Victoria’s grape region.
I went in search of raisins, namely the Australian sultana and muscatels that we have heard so much about. But really, you might say, we’re talking raisins, right? I mean, how much different, let alone vastly superior, can they really be? Well, I invite you to read on and share the experience with me.
My first stop was Tabletop Grapes, just outside the brilliantly sunny town of Mildura which is about five hours’ drive northeast of Adelaide and well-known as a grape and wine region. It was here that I met Gino and Elena Gareffa, the owners and operators of this beautiful property. During my little tour, I learned about the growing and drying processes of the grapes.
Gino is a farmer in the truest sense of the word. While Tabletop Grapes is not a certified organic farm, Gino stresses that pesticides and other chemicals play much less of a role during the growing season than does constant attention and care. While pesticides may be used in the event of an infestation, Gino prefers to keep his overall chemical use to a minimum, convinced that this is an important reason for the success and popularity of his award-winning crops year after year. From what I saw, I can only agree, as these are truly unique raisins, unlike any I have seen or tasted before.
Tabletop Grapes produces fruit mainly for fresh consumption, with only about 15% of the yearly harvest being kept for drying into raisins. The drying process is overseen by Elena with as much pride and care as Gino puts into the growing and harvesting. The grapes are placed in a drying chamber and slow-dried to perfection, taking as long as is needed to retain the most flavour and plumpness in every grape. This carefully monitored drying process often takes as long as six days, resulting in a large, moist raisin of truly excellent quality.
Gino and Elena produce many different varieties of raisin, and after sampling some of the fine specimens I managed to bring home with me, we at Rancho Vignola have had a few tough decisions to make regarding which ones to bring in for this year’s ordering season. After much tasting and loud discussion at our (*ahem!*) executive family meeting, we have settled on two of Tabletop Grapes’ products. The first is the natural Sunmuscat – an exquisitely plump and juicy raisin with a flavour unlike anything you will have tasted before. This is for those who love a raisin for snacking on its own or for an irresistible addition to your own trail mix. The second item is called the Muscatel cluster. A very similar varietal to the Sunmuscat, these large raisins are dried and packaged still on the vine in little clusters. These also make a delicious snacking raisin and are widely used by Australia’s top chefs as a tasty adornment to cheese platters and other dishes. Each raisin contains a seed, which is easily picked out in the large soft fruit, but if eaten does provide excellent health benefits. Extracts from the grape seed have been widely used as a rich source of antioxidants, many times more powerful than vitamins C, E and beta-carotene.
A.R. Jones. Not too far from Tabletop Grapes, driving through gorgeous sunny vine land, I found my way to my next port of call. A.R. Jones is a certified organic raisin and currant producer run by a friendly fellow by the name of Andrew Jones. Andrew, an extremely busy man who spends most of his day deep in the vineyard caring for his grapes, was kind enough to take time to show me around his operation.
The grapes at A.R. Jones are sun-dried under the hot Australian sun as they come off the vines during harvest time. After drying, they are put through a sorting and washing process which also filters out twigs, stones and other debris, as well as sorting the raisins by size. They then travel to a packing room where they are weighed and boxed for transport. All this is done using some elaborate-looking (to me anyway!) equipment that Andrew bought, then adjusted and put together himself to suit his needs perfectly. He is a resourceful fellow, who clearly takes great pride in his product, and his hand is apparent in every part of the growing and packaging of his crops. The result of his tireless attention is a fabulous organic raisin with a truly unmatched flavour.
Back at the Armstrong warehouse, we had a similarly difficult time choosing which of Andrew Jones’ raisins to include in the 2007 lineup, but we have finally settled on four different products: the organic Sultana, the staple, a regular-sized raisin with a beautiful flavour ideal for snacking or using in your favourite recipes; the organic Menindee, a larger raisin with a distinct, exquisite flavour that I found irresistible – a very tasty treat for the raisin-lover; the organic Sunmuscat, the same varietal as the one from Tabletop Grapes – beautiful warm flavour, slightly larger in size, perfect for snacking and mixing in recipes; lastly, the organic currant: lovely currant flavour and perfect for use in trail mixes as well as baking.
We are very excited to have the opportunity to bring these truly exceptional products home to you. I am also personally very happy to have been able to introduce you to the farmers I met and I hope that when you taste their products, you too will be put in mind of the land and people behind the food we eat. As for me, I could swear I taste the Australian summer in these raisins and can almost feel the heat of the Mildura sunshine in January.