Eating Flowers: The fruit of the Capparis Spinosa

Who, while chewing the dark green orb of a caper, would imagine that the mighty little bud that adds such intensity to salads, fava and (my favorite) pasta puttanesca is, in actuality, a flower in the making? A bud that, left alone, will open to reveal an exquisite, aromatic blossom?

I certainly didn’t until, during a visit to Greece about four years back, friends suggested we go foraging for them. Capers? Really? And so we did.

In our flip flops, we waded through tide pools, clambered over and around boulders, and scrambled across a scree slope to reach the base of a precipitous cliff. There we plucked the buds from an immense caper bush that cascaded from a tiny cleft in the rock wall.

After that experience, I was hooked. Not only do I love the flavor of the caper bud, there is something that appeals to my inner romantic about plucking an unopened flower with the intention of eating it. Not to mention the adventure of getting to the places where the tiny nuggets of flavor thrive.

Where the village meets the sea, caper bushes thrive. The plants tolerate salt and often grow from the salt-sprayed cliffs and rocks along the shore. My daughter loves to gather capers here, near a favorite swimming hole.

In his seminal work Enquiry into Plants, the ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus wrote about the caper bush, noting the plant’s “unwillingness to grow on cultivated land.” While caper bushes are cultivated for commercial production today, they grow best in the wild–in the harshest of conditions, the less soil the better. I’ve found them spilling from a crack in a stone fortification in medieval Monemvasia, sprouting from a fissure along the edge of a paved road, and growing in the schoolyard at the Poulithra elementary school. The same friend who took me on my first caper caper (sorry—I couldn’t help myself) discovered a caper bush growing from a crack in the second-story wall of his beautiful little house.

At the Poulithra Dimotiko (elementary school).

While capers grow everywhere around Poulithra, and some people here do harvest and cook with them, I’m told they are not a common ingredient in this region of Greece. They are, however, a staple in other parts of Greece, particularly in the Cyclades where they grow prolifically and are traditionally used in sauces, stews and salads. Those who do pick them, not only pick and preserve the bud of the caper bush, but often its tenderest leaves and branches too.

This horiatiki, or village salad, is topped with home-pickled capers. Look closely to see the leaves and branches included in the mix. Delicious!

Unpicked, the caper bud opens to reveal a lovely purple and white flower, fragrant and a bit unruly with floppy petals and long stamens. Its beauty is fleeting as the blossom lasts only a day before withering away.

Picked, they are cured either with salt, sun or vinegar. (Like olives, capers are never eaten unprocessed.) In Greece, how one processes them depends largely on the region. On the Cycladic island of Santorini, they are traditionally sun-dried until they become rock hard. When ready to use, they are soaked overnight. On other Cycladic islands, capers are often salt-cured and, again, are soaked in water before use.

I haven’t tasted salt-cured or sun-dried capers yet, although I do plan to soon. I intend to try the sun-dried method myself (and will document it here, I promise), and my mother happens to have a jar of caper buds curing in salt on her kitchen counter as I write this. I am eager to taste the results of both methods as I’ve read that, without the vinegar, the flavors are pungent and earthy; citrusy rather than pickled. Pure caper, if you will.

Coming next: Methods for curing the unopened flowers of the caper bush and recipes for using them. As ever, thank you for reading The Shepherd and the Olive Tree!

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25 thoughts on “Eating Flowers: The fruit of the Capparis Spinosa

  1. I LOVE capers! And I had no real idea what they were until now. Thank you for the enlightenment and, as always for your beautiful prose.

  2. Hi, Lex! Great read today! The bloom was amazing . who would have thought? Looking for that romance ….. but, oh, guess it was with the plant. Private chef for a party next week and will be using capers so I will have some knowledge to share. Love.

  3. Lexy, the method I have been using is to soak them in a strong salt brine, changing it daily for several days, tasting, and when I like the flavor, put them in new salt brine with a TBS or so of white wine vinegar. Excellent!. I have loved gathering them for the past few months.
    I have failed on three attempts to propagate them here on this land by the sea, but I will not give up!
    Thanks for this great post, I love capers!

  4. Lexy,

    I’m a big caper fan too – loved this post and seeing the beauty of Poulithra at the height of summer. Will be looking for more posts to live vicariously through as I’m missing Greece big time!
    xoxo
    Amanda

  5. Thanks for a tasty morsel of food knowledge. I remember long ago having the conversation with Martha, “exactly where do capers come from?” and as I recall, no one knew. Thanks for filling the gap!

  6. Alexis: I love to read your posts, love Greece and Greeks. I’ve added the wonderful flower’s picture to my Windows wallpaper.

  7. Alexis mou ~ What a lovely blossom for the salty survivor. My appreciation of those little jars packed with pickled buds has been increased to full-on admiration after reading your fascinating words.

  8. Love your take on capers. They definitely add wonderful dimension to everything they accompany.

    And thanks for the reminder about horiatiki… I had forgotten how much I adore that village salad!

  9. Pingback: Eating Flowers, Part Two: Capers Preserved in Sea Salt | The Shepherd and the Olive Tree

  10. Pingback: Eating Flowers, Part Three: Capers Preserved in Vinegar | The Shepherd and the Olive Tree

  11. Pingback: A Taste of the Sea: Marinated Anchovies | The Shepherd and the Olive Tree

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