Capers: delicacy of the Med!

IMG_7148Now in season here in Cyprus are wild capers, which grow in great abundance everywhere and anywhere, in the countryside and alongside roadways. Hardy perennials, they die off and regenerate themselves from one year to the next.  Native to the tropics, capparis spinosa is thought to have been brought to the Mediterranean through trading in ancient times, adapting and establishing itself in nearly all the countries of the Mediterranean basin, owing to its advantageous conditions of a warm, rainy spring followed by a hot, arid summer. The name appears in Latin from the Greek kápparis (Gr. κάππαρις) giving credence to the theory that its name honored the name of the island of Cyprus (Κύπρος, Kipros), where capers, along with olives, were an export of this Eastern Mediterranean trading center from ancient times through to the Renaissance.

June brings these showy blooms, in stark contrast to the dark green, woody stalks that form the structure of the mature plant. At different points of the bush’s maturation process, different parts are harvested and turned into edible delicacies. Capers are quite pricey outside of the Med but you only need a few to add this unique flavor to seafood and vegetables. Most capers that are produced in Cyprus and other countries in the Mediterranean are bottled in brine. Further down the Mediterranean in Italy, most capers are available packed in salt instead of brine, which tend to be saltier and crunchier.
The most popular way of consuming the caper bush in Cyprus is by pickling the young stalks full of tender leaves in a salty brine. In spring—long before the plant bears its flower buds—the stalks are picked while still bright green and tender, much like young asparagus. Left to soak in water for a week, they are then washed and preserved in a salty brine. Before serving, they are drained and rinsed, drizzled with a little olive oil and a squeeze of lemon that go perfectly with grilled meats and an excellent addition to a  salad of tomatoes, cucumbers and mint.
Capers are actually the buds of this flower and can be picked off at any stage of their development. They are at their peak when bright green, small and tender, about the size of peas. The buds are picked, blanched and then put in a salty brine to cure for a week. We use these most frequently here in Cerines as a topping for Broiled Boneless Salmon Steak, to finish off Piccata al limone, Penne al tonno or for Bucatini alla puttanesca. They also find their way into a yoghurt sauce for fish tacos and in several salads, like Cerines’ own Insalata di fagioli con l’occhio nero and Mediterranean potato salad. These little nuggets of deliciousness are powerhouses of flavor.
After the buds have bloomed, the bush starts to bear fruit. Called caper berries, they are like miniature cucumbers.  These are a great addition to any salad, as they add a bit of salty crunch or served as snack to go along with antipasti for cocktail hour.

Capers in brine

If you’re anywhere in the Mediterranean, grab some friends and the little ones and head out for a walk. Bring some pails to collect your harvest.

1. Wash the picked capers, discarding any blemished buds.
2. In a bowl large enough to accommodate the capers, fill with cold water. Add capers, making sure the water covers the buds. Discard water every 24 hours and replenish with fresh water.
3. After 36 hours, rinse the capers well. Sanitize and dry seal-able jars, enough to accommodate the capers.
4. Add 1 tsp. sea salt to each jar.
5. Fill the jars 3/4 full with the prepared capers. Be careful not to overfill as the the capers will expand.
6. Fill the jar half full with white wine vinegar. Top up with fresh, bottled water, making sure the capers are covered.
7. Seal jars and turn upside down, rotating gently to mix ingredients. Do not shake as the tender caper buds will break apart. Put up the jars in your pantry or cupboard and turn upside down to mix ingredients again after 24 hours. Allow to pickle for a week. Once opened, refrigerate and use within 6 months—if they last that long.

Have you tried this recipe? Before or after you’ve read this? Please share your unique perspective with the rest of the Cerines community in the comments section below! C’mon, people are listening!