You’re probably familiar with the briny little flavor bombs called capers. In the US we use capers to flavor salad dressings and pasta sauces, seafood dishes and as a key ingredient in the classic chicken piccata. They bring a mediterranean flair to everything they touch-a little salty, a little lemony and satisfyingly savory. But, would it surprise you to know this flavorful little flower bud is a different sort of gastronomic delight in the areas of Italy where it grows wild? Let’s have a look at the captivating caper.
Capers grow wild throughout the Mediterranean region of Italy. Like a lovely surprise in the most unexpected places. From Tuscany to Sicily you can see these furtive little bushes (and sometimes big bushes) thriving and spilling forth from cracks in ancient walls, springing up from volcanic terrain and sprouting from boulders along byways and highways. When the flowers are left to bloom their sweet perfume wafts delicately about.
Capers Even Grow in Historical Places
Capers have been thriving throughout the mediterranean since ancient times. They are beyond stalwart in their will to grow as they are found in some of the most remarkable places. They’re very versatile and so uniquely delicious they can be used to enhance almost any gastronomical creation.
The Aurelian Walls, a line of city walls erected in 271 AD and 275 AD to protect the city of Rome, are adorned with wild capers from early spring to autumn. Local residents of metropolitan Rome harvest the capers along this eight mile stretch of ancient walls for their own use. The capers we know are nothing like the wild capers of Italy.
Just What Are Italian Capers?
These delectable and delicious little pearls are actually the unopened buds of the caper plant’s white and fragrant flowers. When they appear they must be picked quickly and harvested by hand. Those in the know wait until just before the bud opens to ensure peak flavor. Then the capers are preserved, Italian style, in salt.
The finest capers are said to be the ones produced in the Sicilian Aeolian island of Salina. With the volcanic soil and the breezes blowing off of the Tyrrhenian Sea the flavor of these precious buds is outstanding. After packing them away in salt for a few months the capers are ready to star in many Sicilian dishes.
Lots of Italians use the fleshy leaves as a type of green, boiling them to serve up as a side dish for a meal. The plants also produce caper berries which are long-stemmed and may be preserved in brine and eaten like olives. But the real star of the caper plant is the bud of the flower. That’s where the flavor resides.
The bud that becomes the caper is much larger than those seen on your local grocery shelf. They can be eaten fresh however when preserved in salt the flavor is much more appealing. Sometimes you’ll see these luscious lemony bits of delight in a brine, but the more common and preferable way to preserve and enjoy capers in Italy is by salting them. A brine, especially a vinegar one, softens the capers and intrudes on the pleasant pop of delicate flavor found in the salted version.
An Ancient and Healthy Superfood?
Capers are by no means a recent discovery. In fact there is reference to capers dating back to 2700 BC in Gilgamesh, the oldest written document. There is also some reference to the Greeks using capers in cooking as well as using the leaves and roots of the plant for medicinal purposes. A surgeon in Nero’s army used capers to treat battle wounds. Even today capers are recognized for their powerful antioxidant punch that helps reduce inflammation, enhance the wound healing process and even regulate blood sugar.
How to Enjoy The Flavorful Caper
The salty Italian capers are such a wonderful addition to round out the flavor of any savory dish. To use salt-preserved capers in cooking you merely need to rinse them thoroughly to remove the salt and add them to your recipe. Fried capers are regionally popular and a nice crispy addition to a Caprese Salad or similar chilled dish. They are also lovely atop a summery bruschetta. Very much like olives, the caper is enjoyed as a snack or item on an Aperitivo menu.
Wild capers harvested and preserved in Italy are just one example of the regional bounty of the mediterranean. Join us and taste these delectable buds for yourself.