Divine, heavenly, celestial: those are few of the words used to describe the capers bud which is the essential ingredient of the Italian traditional cuisine in the South and in the islands. We all have seen pictures of beautiful capers flowers with colorful stamens and pistils but the caper´s true secret of beauty lies in its heavenly scent. Many Italian islands or Italian South regions give you the chance to admire capers plants and experience the delicate and attractive scent released by their flowers.
Since ancient times the capers flowers are called “ The Mediterranean Orchid” and in Italy the plants have always found the perfect home to highlight their genetic characteristic, cultivation and storage method.
In May for about 4 months producers religiously start harvesting the capers. For the rest of the year the capers plants are left only with long shoots.
What is Caper?
Capers are sold in different ways according to the size and the stage of growth: the small bud, decorative and with a delicate aroma; the medium bud with an intense flavor and greatly palatable; the big bud rich in taste, ideally for cooking and to enrich salads. The full maturity of the bud produces the fruit called “cucuncio” which is very rich in flavor and shaped like a small gherkin with a long stalk.
Capers in Recipes
Capers’ strong, distinctive flavor comes from mustard oil. They are high in rutin, but are usually consumed only as an enhancement. In Sicilian cuisine, the eggplant (aubergine) salad known as caponata is made with capers. They are often sold either salted or in vinegar or brine. To eliminate these other flavors, it is usually best to soak capers in cold water and strain before serving.
History of Capers
It is believed that capers originated in western or central Asia, though it has also been suggested that capparis spinosa is native to the Mediterranean Basin, which encompasses the Black Sea and other regions touching western Asia. The Roman author Pliny the Elder, who wrote about Sicilian cuisine, mentioned capers, and so did ancient Greeks. Similar to those of Pantelleria grow in many Mediterranean countries.
Capers in Italy: Salina and Pantelleria
Every year, during the first weekend of June, the tiny Italian island of Salina plays host to a gastronomic gathering in honour of the humble caper. A whole festival dedicated to a small green bud might sound a little eccentric, but for the Italian “slow food” enthusiasts the wild caper symbolises all they most cherish in quality ingredients: it is organic, it is a local speciality and it is best eaten in season and enjoyed in situ. Salina, the Italian island used as a setting for Il Postino, the film that portrayed Pablo Neruda.
The capers of Pantelleria are of the highest quality. The gastronomic tradition identifies themselves of Pantelleria as the best. They are characterized by some vitamins (tiamina, etc) and the glucocapparina which gives it the aroma. The techniques of how they is handled after being picked contributes to the high quality of the product. Once picked, it carefully cleaned from leaves, earth, peduncles, and carefully divided according to the different sizes. They are kept under salt to preserve the strong aroma. After this, there are two phases. The first is set in the farm: the peasant, after finishing the picking, places the capers in special brick containers and covers them with sea salt. The salt dissolves because of the waters in the capers and so it forms a kind of pickle, in which it is immerged for 7 – 8 days. They are then drained from the pickled water and salted again. The process is repeated several times. The second phase is set in a co-operative, where they are divided according to the calibers (sizes) thanks to special machines and then preserved under sea-salt in the percentage of 15%.