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.
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.
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.
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.