The sultana man of Mildura
Nikolaos Kolios did what no one else in the 1920s could do: develop a process to create sun golden sultanas in Australia. Nearly 100 years on, 95 per cent of our dried fruit comes from Mildura. Here is his story
On May 6, the people of Mildura will celebrate at the Festival of the Olives. But on this day, regional Greek Australians will celebrate and showcase the long and prosperous history of migrants to the area who put Mildura on the map. And it was one pioneer, a humble man by the name of Nikolaos Kolios whose 'cold dip' process of curing sultana grapes revolutionised the dried fruits industry in Australia.
Born in Smyrna in 1885, Kolios was married to Kyriaki Athanasiadi. He began a career in banking upon completing his education in Rhodes. After his bank asked him to move to another town, his father-in-law suggested he set up as a grain merchant in Smyrna importing pigs and wine from Cyprus.
Kolios was taken aback by hostilities between Greece and Turkey at the time and fled with his family to Chios, and it was there that fate took a hand in his move to Australia. His cousin suggested they both make the move to start a new life in Australia. And he did, leaving behind his wife and children in Chios.
In Australia, Kolios took the opportunities that were given to him - worked as a draper in eastern Victoria and took over the editorship of the Greek newspaper Ethniki Salpinx in October 1923. But it was discussions with fellow Smyrniot Greeks that would see him seek opportunities in rural Mildura. At the time he was looking at the town, two Greeks had already set up base there as cafe owners.
In 1924, Kolios bought a 100-acre block of land in Mildura, and alongside his uncle Petros Zymaris, and Nikolaos Skamangos and Sideris Kouroupis, moved to Mildura.Whilst there, the men took up work pruning fruit trees picked grapes during harvest. What they noticed would not only change their lives, but the way sultana grapes were cured in the Sunraysia region. The process used by the farmers at the time was to take the grapes and dip them in a hot caustic soda solution and then let them dry. This created a dark brown hardened sultana in lieu of the golden sultanas produced in Smyrna. The Mildura farmers were well aware of the mediocre produce in comparison to Greek fruit but till then could not find a solution.
Kolios saw this as an opportunity to teach the Mildura farmers the way he had learnt in Smyrna, demonstrating fruit-growing and drying. He and his partners approached the Australian Dried Fruits Association (ADFA) and proposed to them that they share with the Mildura farmers their knowledge pertaining to fruit-growing and drying. The ADFA approved this and gave the Greeks a 42-acre block in Irymple and 500 pounds to develop their training program.
In a letter to his sister-in-law, Kolios wrote:
"In a few days time we'll get possession and start to build our home and plant vines and fruit-bearing trees. I will be obliged if you send to me some Greek agricultural reviews or books - they will be useful to me ... I like this country very much, and especially the manners, in every way, of the English people. When my family come here I think I will be the happiest man under the sun".
Their expertise was made available to every fruit grower in Mildura and the people took to their methods immediately and were grateful to the Greeks as they were finally achieving results with their curing process. The block that the Greeks had was open to all farmers in the area interested in learning the Greek methods, from pruning to drying.
What Kolios and his partners introduced was the 'cold dip' method to curing the grapes as the hot caustic soda dip was ultimately burning the fruit.
In an article in Sunraysia Daily, dated Monday 26 May, 1924, in relation to how the golden sultanas are developed, it states:
"Regarding the color [sic] in fruit dried by the Greeks, Mr Kolios states frankly that such color [sic] cannot possibly be obtained with the hot caustic-soda dip and our ordinary methods of cracking the skins of the fruit. There are, he says, no adequate means of regulating the hot dip ... On the other hand, with the carbonate of pot ash cold dip as used by the Greeks, and the systematic use of the hydrometer, the strength of the dip can always be regulated by addition of a little cold water or more pot ash. A small quantity of olive oil is used with the cold dip, but it would be misleading to state definitely what amounts would be used - circumstances would alter cases.
"It could, however, said Mr. Kolios, definitely be stated that one of the secrets of success with the cold dip was the proportion of lye and oil and also the spraying of the fruit on the racks or trays at intervals regulated by conditions and needs. The spraying of the fruit while drying had been used by the fruit dryers of Smyrna to prevent infestation by the grub - a point that should receive very serious attention by growers here. Other points are that with the cold dip so applied there is no cracking of the skins of the fruit and no exudation of the sugar. Instead of cracking the skin corrodes, as it were drying from outward inward, the fruit retaining much of the original flavour."
Kolios stated that the Greeks' success was the correct proportion of potassium carbonate and olive oil in a cold emulsion, followed by a spray to prevent mildew and insect infestation during sun-drying; the cold dip did not crack the fruit's skin therefore the flavour and sugar would stay within.
And again, they received praise in the above mentioned article stating:
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