Capers are a curious little flower bud. Their briny touch of heat adds an interesting hit of flavor to sauces, salads, and main courses to which they're added. Caper bushes grow in harsh, semi-arid environments in Morocco, southeastern Spain, Italy, throughout the Middle East, and in parts of Asia and Australia.
The plant thrives in intense daylight and temperatures of over 40 degrees centigrade in the summer -- though it doesn't do so well in cold and frost. Once it takes hold it acts much like a weed, growing through the cracks of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, creeping over ancient walls in Rome, and snaking between cobblestones and fortifications in Marrakesh and Damascus.
The caper and its relatives in several European tongues can be traced back to classical Latin capparis, which was borrowed from the Greek kápparis -- the origin of which, much like the plant itself, is unknown but most likely Asian. A different theory traces kápparis to the name of the island of Cyprus (Kýpros), where capers grow abundantly. The Sicilian islands of Salina and Pantelleria are justly famous for their capers in salt. There, rustic, often unpaved roads are lined with makeshift (and sometimes not-so-makeshift) stands selling local capers, often manned by a young boy who picked the capers himself.
The island of Salina is the perfect place for every step in the caper production process, since the salt, too, often comes from the island's own salt flats (hence the island's name). It's the good fortune of nature that capers pair so well with the fruits of these islands: seafood from the surrounding Mediterranean, as well as vegetables like eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers for which the cuisine of Sicily is renowned.
The caper buds, when ready to pick, are a dark olive green and roughly the size of a kernel of corn. They're plucked from the bush at the bud's base, then placed in a jar and brined in sea salt, or pickled in a salt-and-vinegar solution, and then eventually drained.
Here, we're picking the little guys from a couple of bushes in the walled back yard of the B&B my friends Monica and Marcello run in the Salento region of southern Puglia, Italy. It was June and every day when we awoke, new buds were ready to be picked and put in a small jar, sotto sale("under salt"), as the Italians say. This way they're perfectly preserved for future use -- though it's best to know a little in advance when you're going to need them for cooking, as they do well with several soakings in water to remove the powerful saline intensity they pick up from the salt.
Harvesting capers can be a labor-intensive, arduous process on a larger scale, since they're too small and delicate to be plucked by machine. It's all done by hand, which is what makes them a pricey comestible. The smallest, called nonpareil, are the most prized of the bunch, and the most frequently used in cooking. Mustard oil (known as glucocapparin) in the capers is released from each bud, which accounts for the bite capers have. When this oil is released, the enzymatic reaction forms rutin, resulting in the crystallized white spots you often find on the surface of the bud.
If left to flower and come to fruit, caper berries are created, which are almost a cross between a traditional caper (bud) and an olive, with lots of tiny, crunchy seeds inside. The caper berries are usually pickled and are often served in Southern Italian and Greek aperitivi and mezze -- perfect pop-in-your-mouth cocktail snacks that, much like briny olives, help to fill the tummy while working up a thirst.
Capers are a distinctive ingredient in Italian cuisine, especially in Sicilian and southern Italian cooking. They're used in everything from salads and pasta salads to meat dishes, fish preparations, and pasta sauces. Two of the most famous uses for capers are in chicken piccata and pasta alla puttanesca.
The latter, of course, is famously named supposedly because it was a pasta dish that was relatively easy for Neapolitan prostitutes ("puttane") to prepare for their clients...(yes, everything -- everything -- in Italy seems to come with a side of pasta!)...the thought being that every single Italian pantry contains, at the very least, canned tomatoes, olives, capers, anchovies, and dried pasta. Whether this is true or not is a different story, but I've always loved this culinary origin tale, mostly because it paints the working girl-client relationship as more than just a business transaction, but as one during which they actually break bread, share pasta, have a few laughs, maybe a glass of wine.
Which leads me to this fun fact about capers: in Biblical times, the caper berry was supposed to have aphrodisiac properties. The Hebrew wordabiyyonah (אֲבִיּוֹנָה) for caperberry is quite closely linked to the Hebrew root אבה, which means "desire" (the word even occurs once in the Bible, in the book of Ecclesiastes). Ancient desire, the Wailing Wall, gorgeous Sicilian islands, friendly prostitutes in Naples...as it turns out, the little caper is a mighty flower bud, finding itself in places sacred and profane, arid and lush, throughout history. Something to chew on.