My love for capers slowly creeped up on me, a lot I imagine like those relationships where the couple start out as friends, and then realize they have something more in common, and soon amore.
What are they?
Capers are the unripened green flower buds of the Capparis spinosa (close kin to the cabbage family), which is a bush grown mainly in Mediterranean countries (namely France, Italy, and Algeria) and in California. For centuries, well at least back to the 16th, in the Mediterranean their harvest is often a supplementary source of income.
The reason these tasty little guys are on the pricy side is that manual labor is required to gather capers. From May to August, the buds are picked each morning just as they reach the proper size. After the buds are picked, they are typically sun-dried, and then pickled in a vinegar brine.
Capers can range in size from that of a tiny peppercorn or nonpareilles (this variety hails from southern France and is considered the finest due to its intense flavor) to the size of the tip of your little finger (from Italy). The size is determined by their age at harvest. First picked nonpareilles, the smallest and tightest buds—measuring about a ¼” in length—have an intense flavor. Food lover extraordinaire and nonpareilles enthusiast, Brillat-Savarin, believed that capers were best when gathered young—before they had “fully developed.” Other gastronomes prefer the fresh, leafy flavor of the largest capers, called gruesas, (Spanish for “bulky”), which are harvested just before they bloom, when they have reached about ½” in length. From smallest to largest, the caper sizes are:
Capers generally come in brine but can also be found salted and sold in bulk. I’ve loaded up on tubes of caper paste in Italy that I add to just about everything. I’ve noticed that people can get set in their ways when it comes to a favorite preservation technique for capers. Its either the vinegary brine, or the salt cure, and for some people it means never crossing that line. The taste is slightly astringent and pungent, kind of peppery, and they can lend piquancy to sauces, pasta, sandwiches, really the options are only limited by the chefs imagination. Hans Röckenwagner at his restaurant, adds deep fried nonpareilles to tuna fish sandwiches for extra crunch and zing.
Curing not only preserves capers; just as with olives, it tempers their inherent bitterness. The most common method of processing freshly harvested capers is for the capers to be fermented for about two months in a saltwater bath. At the end of this process, the pickled capers are rinsed, sized, and packed with vinegar in jars. While many claim this treatment leaches out or masks some of the caper’s delicate flavor, the resulting product is still delicious. The salt-curing method used in parts of Italy produces subtler flavored capers. In this case, fresh capers are mixed into vats of sea salt and left for up to ten days: This technique extracts moisture from the buds, creating a brine for them to pickle in, and concentrating the flavors. They are then strained and the process is repeated. They’re strained once more and packed for sale, still covered in salt. These buds, which must be well rinsed before use, have a delicate flavor and many cooks favor this preservation technique. According to Harold McGee, this process produces astonishing transformation, whereby the radish and onion notes are displaced by the distinct aroma of violets and raspberries. (Harold McGee, p. 409 of On Food and Cooking)
Given that capers are always preserved capers are easy global travelers and have also made their way into cuisines far from the Mediterranean. They show up, for instance, in Hungary’s spiced liptauer cheese and Germany’s Königsberger Klopse (meatballs in caper sauce); in various sauces for fish and meats throughout France; as a garnish on smoked salmon and marinated herring in Scandinavia; and even in Salvadorean meat-filled tamales.
Greek food expert Aglaia Kremezi, says that clay tablets discovered in Crete dating from the 13th century BC state that capers were used to flavor olive oil. The Greeks and Romans later ate them with bread and used them to seasoned fish and meat.
Spain is one of the leading producers of capers, harvests about 1,700 tons annually, and exports about 80%. Another major producer of capers is Italy, where 60% of Italy’s caper production is from the hillside terraces of Pantelleria, an island off Sicily. Capers here are picked later with sizes ranging from ¼” to ½”. Regardless of size, many consider Pantelleria’s capers to be the finest in the world because of their exposure to the sun, the volcanic soil, and the sea salt–curing method used. The Italian government confirms this opinion: In 1993, the island was given a Denominazione di Origine Controllata or DOC—similar to wine— guaranteeing the origin and quality of capers labeled “Pantelleria”.
Need some cooking ideas for capers?
Final note, capers and caperberries are not the same thing. They both come from the same plant, but the capers as described earlier are the immature buds of the plant, while the caperberries are actually the fruit of the plant,basically the unripe bud that would be the caper if it was picked and treated is allowed to ripen flower and produce a fruit. Caperberries can be substituted for capers in a pinch, especially if you want the dish to be a bit less acidic, but the same is not true in reverse.
Finally, Sophie of Sophie Foodiefiles tagged me to answer the following questions. Sophie is a Belgian food lover and creative cook who’s website is filled with incredibly original, healthy recipes that promise to tempt you from the start.
1. What is your most memorable meal that you ate in your life & why?
I cannot pick just one, the most recent one is the dinner we had in Rome – simply an amazing way to celebrate our 10th Anniversary, others include a wedding on Mt. Fuji in Japan and asked to sing karaoke at our hotel bar (exceedingly tone deaf, it was not pleasant for me, and I imagine everyone else) the food was just exceptional. There’s also those first time meals, like the first time I had sushi and my friend convinced me that the washabi was avocado, or the first time I discovered pho, or the first time I had a stuffed artichoke.
2. Why did you started blogging?
I am not sure I had one specific reason. I saw some fantastic blogs out there and felt like I wanted to participate more than just reading and commenting. I had something I wanted to say and I was curious if others were interested in the same things.
3. What is your favorite restaurant, where & why?
Again, its almost impossible to pick one. I love Komi in Washington, DC, the creativity and dedication to quality was obvious from the first time I stepped in the door. The chef had renovated the dining room and reduced the number of seats to make sure that the focused remained on quality. How many times do you see that?
4. Who are your 3 favorite chefs in the world and why?
Hands down, my mom tops the list with her creativity and dedication and curiosity, and because she started me down the path of appreciating good food. Heston Blumenthal’s creativity just blows me away, I mean meat fruit! How often do you see that? Michel Richard was another favorite chef of mine when I lived in the DC area.
5. What is your favorite recipe on your own blog and why?
I love all the recipes, but I have to say, I had a lot of fun working with Adrienne Andrews of Gastroantropology and love the recipes she created for our joint projects. I cannot wait to see the next one she has in the works. Her Its-It recipe rocked as did the popovers.
6. To which music do you listen to when you cook and bake & why?
Sometimes I just like the silence, but otherwise I will always love the Stones
7. What is the strangest food that you have ever eaten and did you like it or not?
This is a trick question as everyone has a different definition of strangeness. What might be strange for me is perfectly normal for someone else. My first trip abroad was to Japan and I knew that they ate eel. Growing up in the midwest, this was not a food I had encountered, and by the looks of them was grateful for that fact. Three days into our visit, my cousin asked me if there was any food I would not eat. I said eel. There was this pregnant pause before she responded that I had eaten eel for breakfast since I arrived. I loved it, and acknowledged as much, and have never looked back.
8. What is your most lovely food destination in the world & why?
Sophie these sorts of questions are just mean. I cannot pick just one. Sampling fresh cheese at a farmers market in France, sharing a hearty meal in one of those restaurants that are in the basement of those old buildings in Prague where its all warm and cozy and the bonhomie just draws you in, and you follow that up with a walk over the Charles Bridge. Sampling food in Kyoto with its beauty, and incredible temples. People watching in a Paris cafe. What’s not to love with all this diversity!
9. What is your most favorite food shop in the world & why?
I fell in love with Fortnum & Mason the first moment I walked into their flagship store in London, it is like a temple devoted to food. After that, I’d have to say, I love the floors that have the food in the big Japanese department stores – so many options, so many new products and just so much to take in.
10. Which kitchen gadget do you love the most & why?
Not a day goes by that I do not use my blender.