The caper is the partly opened bud of the bush, Capparis spinosa. It grows all over the Mediterranean, but probably originated in Asia Minor or Greece. In some parts, the plant is considered a weed. Not on Pantelleria or Salina, both islands off the coast of Sicily, Italy. Here, one of the inhabitants’ main sources of income is the caper. And what a caper it is!
Pantelleria and Salina produce the Best Capers
Pantelleria and Salina are small, arid islands, wind swept and sunny most of the year. There is something about the salty air and the harsh sunlight that makes capers from Pantelleria and Salina special. The caper bush grows there in the most hostile of places…. between the rocks of old walls, in among the tombstones in cemeteries, along the edges of dirt roads.
The bush is hardy, but difficult to ‘farm’. It puts out long tendrils which radiate along the ground from the plant . The buds of the caper flowers are on the ends of the tendrils, appear daily and are harvested by hand. Caper pickers leave a few to become caper fruit, for reproductive purposes.The fruit is similar to the caper bud, but much larger. It looks very much like an olive, but has a bitter taste. Though also used as a condiment, it is considered inferior to the bud. As you can see on this Italian video, harvesting the caper is long, tedious work . Caper gatherers must have strong backs and knees.
Though fresh capers right off the bush can also be covered in vinegar or olive oil, the best capers are preserved in sea salt. The freshly picked capers are first mixed with sea salt, left to ferment for awhile , then more salt is added. The dosage of salt depends on the capers themselves and the weather on the day of harvesting, and has become a fine art, learned over years of practical experience.
Capers throughout History
Capers have been used in Mediterranean cooking for at least 9000 years. According to Andrew Dalby in his Food in the Ancient World from A to Z , capers were harvested as early as 7000 BC. They are mentioned in the writings of Aristotle, Plautus, Pliny and Galen.
Join the ancient Greeks and Romans in their love of capers, which have ‘imami’, a deep, pungent savory taste, and add bursts of flavor to almost any dish. First, put a handful of capers under cold water to rinse the salt from them. Then, for a zesty taste extra, add the capers to a salad, to a butter sauce, or crushed, to homemade mayonnaise.
Or slice five or six red and yellow peppers lengthwise, remove the seeds, and cut the pieces into finger sized strips. Sauté them very slowly in olive oil, in a large frying pan, stirring occasionally. When they are almost done, add two handfuls of capers (rinsed) and two handfuls of raisins (soaked in water previously) and salt to taste. Cook another five minutes. Serve hot or cold as an appetizer.
Or add capers to a healthy rice salad …great for picnics.
Add Capers to many Dishes
Put the word ‘capers’ into any ingredient-based cooking web site. You’ll see that they are often used in combination with butter, olive oil, lemon or parsley, but not only! 2000 recipes
which include capers are on the website Supercook.
Here are just a few:
Golden Potatoes with Caper Brown-Butter Crumbs
Pan Seared Salmon
Sauteed chicken breasts with capers
Pearl Oyster Bar Tartar Sauce
Tomato, Tuna & Caper Sauce
Enjoy adding layers of taste to your dishes with capers.
- Food in the Ancient World from A to Z by Andrew Dalby
- Encyclopedia Brittanica
- Website Capperi.it