They are very much a part of the Mediterranean diet, although I have to admit I often forget to toss them into a dish or salad to give it that extra zest.
Capers are the flower buds of a perennial bush that can reach up to 1-2 m and many caper bushes grow wild, in profusion in fact, on rocky grounds, in walls, and old ruins in hot Mediterranean countries. The stems carry thick glossy leaves, prickly in the wild variety; pretty white flowers on stalks are followed by pear shaped fruits.
The small caper buds are picked, dried, and then pickled in wine vinegar brine. Their white flowers, not unlike wild roses, have the shortest lifespan, as they open in the morning and are dead by noon.
The larger, coarser buds are also harvested; those are the ones that can be seen packed in salt where capers are abundant. They can taste good, but are often of an inferior quality and can turn rancid quickly. The flower bud of the caper plant has been used as food since ancient times, and even as a medicine or a cosmetic.
The Sicilian capers from the Island of Pantelleria (Southern side) are considered the best quality, both for their aroma and vitamin content. Together with those from the Island of Salina (Northern side) these islands produce 95% of the entire Italian production.
How the caper is handled after being picked is critical in ensuring the high quality of the product. Once picked, it is carefully cleaned from leaves, earth, stalks, and divided according to the different sizes.
After picking there are two phases. The first is on the farm when the capers are placed in special brick containers and covered with coarse sea salt. The salt dissolves because of the water in the capers and so it forms a kind of pickle, in which it is immersed for 7 – 10 days. The capers are then drained from the pickled water and salted again. The process is repeated several times. The second phase is at the farmers’ co-operative, where the capers are divided according to sizes by special machines and then preserved under sea-salt.
During the next 8-10 days the salted capers are transferred from one container to another; stirred every day for the first eight days and then stirred once a week for the next 3 weeks. After about a month the capers are ready to be packaged. As the harvesting is done by hand, most farms are small family businesses being involved in the entire production cycle of the plant from its cultivation, harvesting, to processing and preservation.
So check your jars and see where your capers come from since most Sicilian capers are exported to the USA and Australia.