Like us, the ancient Greeks and Romans ate capers. They also used the roots and leaves of the caper bush, or Capparis Spinosa, for medicinal purposes. The Roman naturalist and author, Pliny the Elder, noted the caper in Naturalis Historia, his encyclopedic study of geography, anthropology, and natural history. And the Greek scholar, Athenaeus, mused upon it in his fifteen-book work, The Deipnosophistae, or The Banquet of the Learned or (my favorite translation of the title) Philosophers at Dinner, in which the protagonist, Ulpian, is the host of a long, leisurely banquet throughout which literary and historical conversations course.
It seems the bush’s medicinal properties warrant the attention: The ancient Greeks used capers to reduce flatulence. In Ayurveda, the Hindu system of traditional medicine, capers are known as hepatic stimulants and protectors, improving liver function. Today we understand that when a caper bud is dehydrated, salted, or brined, it releases mustard oil (glucocapparin). That enzymatic reaction then leads to the formation of rutin, a powerful antioxidant bioflavonoid.
Medicinal properties aside, many of us agree that the fruit of the Capparis Spinosa is delicious. Since the ancient Greeks preserved capers—and olives—in sea salt (brining methods were developed later), we’ll begin with salt, too.
- Sort the capers carefully, picking off any long stems.
- Rinse them in a colander; pat dry.
- Place the capers in a jar, layering them with sea salt. (If you have a lot of capers, it’s best to use two small jars.)
- Cover the jar with its lid and shake it to make sure the salt is well distributed.
- Remove the lid and cover the jar with a paper napkin; close with a rubber band.
- Leave the jar where it will get some air, but not in direct sunlight.
- Every day, drain off any liquid that forms, adding another spoonful of salt in the process.
- When the capers stop giving off liquid (in 5-10 days), transfer to a clean jar and close with a lid.
Salt-cured capers can be kept in a cool, dark place for up to one year. Before using, rinse in cold water. They may also be used unrinsed in place of salt.
Since my love affair with the caper began, I’ve noticed that there are subtle variations within the curing-in-salt theme. My friend Hank Shaw told me that blanching the capers for one minute before salt-curing them will halt the enzymatic process and preserve the buds’ bright green color. A method used in Sicily, where salted capers are common, calls for dehydrating them before beginning the process above.