Capers (Capparis spinosa)
We have the Mediterranean coast to thank for a handful of ingredients that have become staples of the gourmet kitchen, to name a few; pomegranates, artichokes, olives, pine nuts (to which my previous blog post was dedicated) and capers. The summer heat is creeping up here, and recently my early morning walks have led me to discover three large caper bushes in steady bloom, growing from arid, rocky ground. Caper bushes (Turkish: kapari, Latin: Capparis spinosa) are a perennial species, and easy to identify in the early summer months due to the beautiful flowers they display. A delicate, large-ish flower with purple firework stamen and a central stem bearing what will become the fruit. The flowers burst open, wilt, shrivel and die in less than a day. The leaves are fleshy and round, and the thorny stems feature a delicate colour gradient of mint green to purple. I spent many years buying the occasional jar of capers to add to salads and pizza, without really looking into the story of these somewhat inconspicuous, mini salt-bombs. Here’s what I’ve discovered about the caper bush...
Capers are the flower buds of the caper bush. Usually pickled in a vinegar brine, they can also be dry-cured with salt. I’ve started to take a bag on my morning walks and have spent ten or fifteen minutes at the roadside, in the just-bearable heat of the early sun rays, collecting the small-to-medium sized buds from the stems. You’ll notice each branch has a variety of bud sizes ranging from tiny at the tips, to large-and-ready-to-open as you move up the branch. It’s best to collect the small or medium sized buds. Commercial pickers catagorise capers into grades (with interesting names), according to their size, which can range from around 5mm to 14mm. Nonpareille, Surfin, Capucine, Capote, Fine and Gruesos make up the Italian grade names, though these names vary across the growing region. Capers between 5-7mm are the most desirable for consumption.
The harvest season for caper bushes lasts around 12 weeks. If you don’t wear gloves to pluck the buds from the stems (which I rarely do as I welcome a bit of punishment from nature) then expect a few thorn stabs in retaliation for stealing the bush’s upcoming bloom.
To pickle capers, I follow the following steps:
-soak the buds in a refrigerated jar of water for four days, changing the water daily
-then add an equal mixture of water and white vinegar, with a teaspoon or two of salt (depending on your harvest size)
-leave for two weeks before sampling, if more salt is desired then add another teaspoon
-leave for two more weeks before consuming (they should be good for at least 12 months if kept refrigerated)
Caperberries are the fruit left behind once the flower dies off. Shaped like mini marrows, they contain many seeds and have a less intense flavour than caper buds. It’s best to pick only the smallest caperberries. These can too be pickled and then eaten in salad, roasted, or pan fried to accompany fish dishes, top pizzas or accompany olives and cherry tomatoes.
How to use:
Do you have a neglected half-used jar or capers at the back of the fridge, or are you tempted to forage your own this summer? If so, here’s a short list of recipe inspiration for future culinary experimentation:
Tomato, olive and caper linguine
Dumped on a pile of fresh hummus
Pizza with tuna or anchovies and black olives
Potato Salad with lemon vinaigrette
If you are reading this from outside the Mediterranean region, I hope this article has brought a little knowledge munition to fire across the dinner table. If you’re blessed to live in an area where Capparis spinosa occupies the rural verges, then do go out and get picking. Collect a few smallish jars, embrace the thorn stabs, and dedicate a corner of your fridge to your caper collection! As always it’s important to not obliterate the plant. Forage respectfully, leaving a decent amount of reproductive capability on the plant.
Happy picking and pickling, people!