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The Bacchic pleasures of those intoxicating fruits of the vine

Posted in Ancient History, Bible, Historical articles, Plants on Tuesday, 28 February 2012

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This edited article about fruits originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 654 published on 27 July 1974.

Cleopatra and Mark Antony, picture, image, illustration

Cleopatra teasing Mark Antony with a bunch of grapes by Don Lawrence

If you ever have an opportunity to visit Hampton Court Palace, in Middlesex, take a look in the vinery. There, you can see a gigantic grape vine, which has a girth of six-feet two-inches, and a main branch measuring a hundred-and-twenty feet long. It was planted in 1769, but still yields three hundred pounds of fruit each year, which is sold to the public.

Grapes have been popular in Britain since the 1st century A.D. when our ancestors called them winberige, meaning berry of the vine. After the Norman Conquest, winberige was replaced by the French word, grappe, which really referred to the hook used to gather the fruit.

When the Domesday Book, William the Conqueror’s survey of England, was prepared between 1085 and 1086, there were thirty-eight vineyards in the south of the country. Gloucester, in particular, was famous for the quality of its grapes.

Although this fruit was grown as a luxury in this country, it has been a source of food and wine in the hot regions of the world for thousands of years. Its importance is shown in the Biblical story of Noah which tells how, immediately the flood subsided, he planted a vineyard. Grape seeds have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and instructions for its cultivation and wine production have been deciphered from hieroglyphics written about 2,400 B.C.

Over the centuries, as grape culture spread westward, through Asia Minor, Greece, Sicily and was carried by Phoenician traders to France, it also travelled into the Orient by way of India. So, today there are more than 8,000 known varieties of the fruit. Some are grown purely for the table. Others are cultivated for wine-making, because they contain more glucose and are more easily fermented.

During the process of fermentation, a deposit of acid potassium salt crystals is formed. The crystals are grey or red in colour and called argol. When this is refined, it becomes the cream of tartar used in baking powder.

A small, seedless variety of grape is grown to make currants, the dried fruits which take their name from Corinth, in Greece, from where the first currants came. Sultanas are obtained from another seedless variety, the Smyrna, from Izmir in Turkey, and raisins are produced from muscatel grapes grown in the Mediterranean countries, California and Australia.

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