Capers

The primary product of the spiny, arid-adapted caper bush (Capparis spinosa var. spinosa) is an unopened flower bud, and a somewhat sharp, astringent, palate-punishing one at that. To rid the buds of their bitterness, they are cured in salt or pickled in a salt and vinegar brine. Once cured, the capric acid, quercetin, and kaempferol in the buds (the latter two are flavonoids) generate a powerful fragrance in the never-to-fully-bloom flowers.

The caper bush also yields berries, the mature fruits of the plant. Like the flower buds, the delicately ribbed, olive green, teardrop-shaped berries are cured to reduce their pungency and then used in many of the same ways. Both the buds and the berries are harvested on islands and along coastlines around the Mediterranean, but the berries have never experienced the demand beyond their home ground that the buds have enjoyed. The tiniest buds, despite their size and ephemeral nature, command the highest prices around the world. Italy, Morocco, Spain, and Turkey serve as the largest producers.

Capers appear in archaeological records from the Mediterranean to southern Russia, but their prehistoric use did not extend much farther east than Turkey and the Levant. It appears that the Arabic term al-kabar, or perhaps even an older form from some other Semitic language such as Phoenician or Nabataean, has become the loan word into most other languages in which these buds and berries are known. In Turkish, we hear kapari; in Hindi, kobra or kabra; in Japanese, keipa; in Italian, cappero; in Portuguese, alcaparra; and so on. There may have been direct diffusion of this semicultivated plant, its curing techniques, and its consumption from the earliest Semitic spice traders to the rest of the known world.

Capers love ruins. I have seen the bushes growing feral among the stones of Baalbek in the Bekáa Valley of Lebanon; In Jerusalem’s Old city, twining up light posts outside the Arab Quarter; in Athens, crawling up the walls of the Parthenon; and in Andalusia, spreading along the garden walkways of the Alhambra. I was most surprised to find them in the ruins of the ancient city of Jiahe in the Taklimakan Desert of western china, where they have become the most dominant plants within the nearly forgotten two-thousand-year-old metropolis.

There is, in fact, an Asian caper that is recognized by botanists as a distinct variety (C. spinosa var. mariana). It is native to India, Pakistan, and southeast Asia, but I am not familiar enough with it to know whether it is what I actually encountered in western china, or whether the Persians and Arabs had brought their own caper with them when they settled at the far eastern reaches of the Silk Roads.

I first saw caper vines being cultivated under fruit trees at food historian Mary Simeti’s farm in central Sicily. There they grew scandent, that is, they had become shrublike at their bases, but then twined up the trunks of trees like true vines. Giuseppe Barbera, a Sicilian agronomist friend of Mary’s, told me that capers had long been one of the most precious commodities shipped from Sicily to the rest of the world. No Sicilian American can visit the homeland without hiding a package of this high-priced delicacy in his or [her] luggage on leaving, and so, I kid my Sicilian friends that long before their Mafioso neighbors smuggled drugs, they smuggled caper bushes, for each time I have tried to transplant caper seedlings into the limestone soils of my own orchard, they have withered and died after a few weeks, perhaps for the lack of Mediterranean breezes and their humidity.

Capers are used in all kinds of sauces for meats, fish, and fowl, including pescado a la veracruzana, which speaks to Andalusian, Moorish, and Lebanese influences on colonial Mexico; the picadillos found throughout Latin America and Spain, salsa puttanesca in Italy, and the rémoulades found in Acadian, Cajun, and Creole cuisines. In France, capers flavor Montpellier butter, and in Slovakia, Hungary, and Austria, they join onions, herbs, and other flavorings in Liptauer cheese. Greece, Crete, and Cypress, they seem to garnish nearly every kind of salad and are added to a wide range of sauces. In Lebanon and Palestine, they are ever-present among the many mezes, and if a cook there ever runs out of capers, he or she can simply go out to the closest stone walls and immediately retrieve a few for the next dish. 

 

Resources: 
Green, Aliza. Field Guide to Herbs and Spices. Philadelphia: Quirck Books, 2006.
Katzer, Gernot. “Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.” http://gernot-katzers-spice- pages.com/engl/index.html. Accessed September 1, 2011.
Weiss, E.A. Spice Crops. Wallingford, U.K.: CABI Publishing, 2002.
Image Credit: By Rainer Zenz at German Wikipedia - Transferred from de.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2371404
With permission from: 
Gary Nabhan’s Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey
University of California Press