All About Capers
Although small in stature and easily overlooked in appearance the caper is an explosion of flavor. They are pungent, peppery buds of a perennial shrub.
One of the most surprising things about the caper plant is just how gorgeous the flowers are – delicate purple stamens bursting out of white petals, bearing a remarkable resemblance to a miniature fireworks display. These beautiful showy flowers seem oddly inconsistent with the austere, tart little nuggets pickled in glass that we find on the grocer’s shelf. It is hard to imagine that those dark olive-colored delicacies are in fact the tiny buds of such flamboyant flowers. But in fact, the small green buds are harvested by hand before they burst into flower – the smallest, youngest buds are the tastiest – then pickled in sea salt or vinegar, to add a wonderfully sharp, piquant flavor to a variety of Italian dishes. The semi-mature oblong fruits, which are called caper berries, may also be pickled and used as a condiment.
Capperi (plural form), as they are called in Italian (the singular form is cappero) grow wild throughout southern and sometimes central Italy—often seen sprouting out between the cracks of old brick farmhouses – or in the rocky coastal areas. Many Italians grow capers in their gardens; a plant can be harvested up to 12 times per year, yielding 3 to 7 pounds of capers. Though the exclamation “Capperi!” is a rather old-fashioned expression – comparable to “gosh” or “good heavens!” – it is still testimony to the prevalence of this plant throughout the country.
Capparis spinosa L. is a perennial shrub, with deep roots, native to the Mediterranean region; its sometimes thorny branches can reach a height of four to five feet. The most renowned species in Italy is the Cappero di Pantelleria, named for the island south of Sicily where it grows – in fact, it has received the European IGP label (Indication of Geographic Protection) that certifies the authenticity and geographic origin of a relatively few very special foods.
Capers have been known and used for millennia – references exist in ancient Greek literature (such as, The Deipnosophistae) and the Old Testament, and in the writings of Roman scholar, Pliny the Elder. This pickled bud is a classic among Mediterranean flavors. Capers have a pungent, peppery taste that is similar to that of mustard – the pickling process causes mustard oil to be released – and are widely used in southern Italian cuisine for seasoning and garnish. There are a number of delicious Sicilian recipes using capers (see below). Capers are often married with olives, anchovies, peppers, fish such as tuna, swordfish and salmon, salads, pasta salads and pizzas. One important tip: capers’ unique flavor can easily overwhelm other ingredients, so use sparingly – except in preparations where in recipes where capers are meant to predominate.