It’s a strange world, where we pick flower buds, spread them out to dry in the sun, then leave them to macerate in salt or vinegar. If they are left undisturbed on their spiny bushes, caper buds burst into glorious bloom in the early morning sunshine. For a few short hours, their long, waving stamens are irresistible to bees, then their lovely pink-white petals quickly wither in the strong afternoon sun. Who could possibly have discovered that, once “cured” (dried, salted or soaked in vinegar), the rather vegetal-tasting caper bud develops a delicate, earthy flavor with a lovely floral overtone? It’s this symphony of tastes that make capers so alluring.
Source of wealth for islanders
The appeal of capers has been long-lasting and far-reaching. Until recently, few caper flowers were ever seen on the Greek Cycladic islands of Santorini, Andros, Folegandros, or coastal Crete and Cyprus, as the buds were rarely given the chance to flower. In Greece, capers have always been a valued local food and flavoring, and the caper trade a source of wealth for the islanders.
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Caper seeds have been found in Belgian ditches dating as far back as the Middle Ages. And early British cookbooks contain recipes for mutton and skate with caper sauce, and suggest liberal use of capers in salads and with cold meats. Since the caper bush, or shrub (capparis spinosa), can’t thrive in these countries, capers had to be traded. So what was it that made them so attractive to those medieval northern Europeans?
It may have been the plant’s good-health qualities that have given it such value throughout its long history. There is evidence that the Sumerians (circa 2000 B.C.) used capers medicinally, and it’s obvious that the ancient Greeks understood the process necessary to turn caper buds into delicious capers: In the 4th century B.C., the “father of botany,” Theophrastus, remarked in his seminal work, “Enquiry into Plants,” that the wild caper plant appeared not to like cultivated land and those grown in such conditions produced smaller, softer capers of inferior flavor. They still do.
How capers work
When capers, caper leaves or berries are cured, an enzymatic reaction takes place and a flavanoid glycoside, glucocapparin, a mustard-oil that gives the caper its taste, is released from the plant tissues. In this, capers resemble their cousins in the cabbage family — cress, mustards, horseradish — all of which contain mustard-oil glycosides. Another of its flavonoids is rutin, a strong antioxidant which, pharmacologically speaking, improves capillary function. It’s considered to be anti-rheumatic, and therefore an effective treatment for arthritis and gout, a diuretic and, in non-medical-speak, a “liver protector” and “kidney disinfectant.”
An attempt at caper-gathering
The caper plant loves hot, dry summers with a smattering of spring rainfall, making the Aegean Mediterranean, swept by a strong sea breeze, the perfect home. There, the caper plant can nestle into the cracks and crevices of cliffs and stone walls.
But it was only when I tried to preserve my own capers for my Santorini cookery school that I realized just how difficult it was to create their lovely, tart pungency. The first problem was in the gathering of them—the best crops of buds always seemed to be just out of reach, dangling over alarmingly-steep cliffs. The bushes’ thorny stems make picking them painful work and a good harvest requires near-daily collections over four to five weeks, as the buds don’t all develop at the same time.
Local skilled gatherers pick young, tender leaves at the same time as the buds, for pickling. Later in the summer, after the caper buds that managed to escape the earlier harvest have flowered and fruited, the berries are collected and preserved in brine. For finest flavor, Cycladic islanders preserve wild capers in salt. It’s worth searching for these at home, as they have less of the acidic tang of vinegar-preserved capers and a greater depth of flavor. Interestingly, though, the most rutin is found in the dried buds, a process that, until recently, was a common way of curing capers on Santorini.
If you are in doubt as to the difference in taste and texture between wild and cultivated capers, don’t take my word for it — try both together. And perhaps spare a thought too for those great sages of the past, who so well-appreciated that food not only had to do you good, but had to taste good, too.
Paired with tomatoes
In early summer on Santorini, tomato plants give in to the dry heat and collapse, dotting the island’s gray, volcanic soil with ripe, tiny, deep-crimson tomatoes. For a few short weeks, they can be made into this pretty meze.
To prepare salt-preserved capers for the table, soak them in several changes of cold water; brine- and vinegar-preserved capers only need rinsing.
Variation: Although it takes more work, this dish is at its traditional best when the olives, capers and garlic are mashed in a mortar or bowl before you add the vinegar and olive oil. The sauce texture will be coarser, but its flavor will be more refined.
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 24 tiny, or cherry, tomatoes
- ¼ teaspoon sugar (if tomatoes aren’t sun-ripened, optional)
- 1 cup Greek cracked green or Nafplion olives, or brine-packed, pit-in, Spanish green olives
- 2 tablespoons salt-packed (or brine- or vinegar-preserved) capers, soaked, rinsed, and patted dry
- 1 small clove garlic, minced
- ½ teaspoon red-wine vinegar
- 3 to 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh fennel fronds or flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
- 4 thin slices whole-wheat or country-style bread, toasted
- In a small, heavy skillet over very low heat, heat the olive oil. Add the tomatoes, sprinkle with the sugar, cover, and cook for about 3 minutes, or until their skins split. Set aside in the skillet to cool.
- Make the sauce: Blanch the olives in boiling water for 5 seconds. Drain, pit, and chop. In a food processor, combine the olives, capers, and garlic. Process until well mixed. With the machine running, add the vinegar, drop by drop, then the olive oil (to taste) in a steady stream.
- Spread the sauce over a small platter. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the tomatoes to the platter. Garnish with fennel or parsley. Cut each slice of toast into 4 triangles. Sprinkle the bread with the liquid remaining in the tomato pan.