What are Capers? A staple in Italian Cooking

capers and leaves

Caper Berry Plant


This past weekend at a seminar I found myself trying to explain what exactly is a caper.  These little pungent Mediteranean capers come from the bud of blossoming bushes.  I actually had the pleasure of seeing caper bushes.  It was many years ago when  my brother and I visited our grandparents at their home town on the island of Ischia. They took us for a leisurely walk through town and we visited the Castello Aragonese, a medieval castle built on volcanic rock. As we walked up to the castle, clinging to the cracked walls and cliffs were these unusual and attractive ornamental shrubs.  They were thriving in the sunny hot dry climate of Ischia. As you can see from the picture the castle is nestled on volcanic rock in the middle of the sea. So these caper shrubs are evidently salt tolerant as well. My Nonno (grandfather) pointed out the capers on the shrubs. The bushy plant had a thick cluster of thorny branches and fleshy, egg shaped leaves. They were as high as five feet in some places, but most were sprawled out over rocks and soil.

castel in ischia

Castelo Aragonese – A medieval castle on volcanic rock off the island of Ischia in Naples, Italy

Nonno explained that from April to June, the caper shrub’s tiny buds flower into large, sweet-scented, pink blooms clustered with long, violet stamens. The plants harvested for capers, however, rarely blossom. Instead, workers endure hot sun, sharp thorns and rugged terrain throughout the summer to pick the precious buds as they ripen.  It was a beautiful walk as we gazed out to sea. My Nonno walked ahead explaining all the sites while my Nonna (grandmother) ambled behind slowly carrying her large purse under her arm.  Nick and I found our Italian grandparents amusing.  At one point it started sprinkling as was common in the afternoons in Ischia, a sun shower.  Nonno slowed down and turned to ask my Nonna if she was ok.  In his tongue in cheek manner he just shook his head as he found Nonna pulling out  a clear plastic rain bonnet for her head and a sweater for her shoulders out of that large white purse of hers.  My brother and I were hysterically laughing not just at my Nonna but at Nonno’s reaction.  What a special caper memory.  I think of them whenever I use capers in my cooking.

Capers are enhanced enhanced by a pickling process fundamental to their cultivation, their tart and briny flavors enrich sauces, spreads and garnishes.  Capers are a staple in the Italian kitchen. The tiny, piquant buds are enjoyed from region to region, from the north to the south.  In Sicily capers are served in caponata, a summer side dish in which their saline bite cuts through the rich taste of tender, slow-cooked eggplant.  In Naples they adorn spaghetti alla puttanesca, one of the sauces I made at the seminar where the capers are combined with tomatoes, olives and anchovies in a pasta fredda to create a light yet assertive sauce. The tangy orbs are often sprinkled over pizza, pasta, and fish dishes as a flavorful garnish, and they appear in a variety of sauces.

Most capers come from wild plants, though in Spain and Italy—the two largest producers—they are cultivated. Sicily and the Aeolian island of Salina produce the majority of Italy’s capers. The best, though, come from Pantelleria. On this tiny island, halfway to Tunisia, volcanic soil and the heat of an intense Mediterranean sun create ideal growing conditions. The berries are also picked, and both are pickled for use as a seasoning and garnish. The bud, or caper, is pickled in salt and vinegar brine, then sold in vinegar or packed in salt. The berry—the larger, plump, mature fruit of the plant—resembles a green grape with faint, white stripes and, like olives, is served in pastas, salads or even as a garnish in martinis. When choosing capers, look for dark green buds packed tightly in sea salt, because those submerged in vinegar lack the subtle, natural taste of the salted ones. The smaller buds have a more delicate flavor while the larger ones have less taste and could be frauds—sometimes the similar-looking buds of the nasturtium plant are passed off as capers. The French term nonpareil is commonly used to denote the smallest buds; surfines are the next largest. True Italian capers, though, are sorted by millimeter with mechanized screens. They range from 7 millimeters to 16 millimeters. Unfortunately in stores their size is not often marked.  Be sure to look for buds not larger than a raisin. If using salted capers, soak them for five to ten minutes and drain to remove excess salt. Those in vinegar only require rinsing.

“Sauce Snob”

The "Sauce Snob"

I had two wonderful days showcasing my sauce in the Adams Fairacre Farms in
both Newburgh and Kingston this weekend.  Talking to people while they experience 825 MAIN Marinara is so much fun!  I love hearing people’s stories! My favorite story was from an Italian woman who was born in the Campania region of Italy.  She exclaimed that although she makes her own sauce she likes to try bottled sauces to see if her sauce has any competition.  So as I gladly handed her a sample, she shared with me how she brings her family to her hometown in Italy every summer. Her passion for food was evident as her face lit up with excitement as she recalled all the regional foods she introduces her family to. She even went so far as to explain that her home space is taken up with a huge kitchen.  I watched her face carefully as she put the spoon to her lips, eagerly waiting for her nod of approval.  In the typical way that an Italian would nod with that little shrug meaning “it’s good but not as good as mine”, the mom
tried to delicately give me her critique. I didn’t take any offense explaining that 825 MAIN Marinara is supposed to be a marinara sauce that one uses when they don’t want to sacrifice taste for time. But the funniest thing about this cute woman was that it wasn’t enough to give me just her opinion, she quickly called her kids over to try the sauce.  She needed her kids to rate my sauce against her sauce.  So as her children (all young adults)  tried my sauce their faces lit up and said “Mom! This sauce is really good!”  The woman got a little sheepish but was a good sport about it. I couldn’t help but react with the biggest smile on my face but quickly toned it
down as she glanced over at me.  It turns out that the family was in Adams shopping for dinner.  They have a summer home in Woodstock and all six kids were visiting and mom needed to make dinner.   To make me feel better the mom picked up a jar.   But what was even funnier was that the kids came back behind her and picked up another jar.  As they left my sampling table they all cheered me on. Later the mom came back and apologized. She said her kids called her a “sauce snob”.  I told her I was not offended at all! We quickly bonded over our love for food and a quest to serve our family only the best. The only difference between her and me is that my mission is to share my delicious sauce with all of you. As I think back over this weekend’s stories I am empowered by my accomplishment!  I convinced a “sauce snob” to buy not one jar but 2 jars of 825 MAIN Marinara.  Now that’s what I call a great weekend!