While walking around the neighbourhood yesterday, I noticed that the caper flowers were in bloom. Although I’ve used capers in salads and garnishes for years, I had never actually seen capers growing until I came to Rome. Vatican city and some other associated religious institutions, are surrounded by very high brick walls and some are covered with wild caper bushes which grow in between the bricks and cascade down the walls.
Caper (Capparis spinosa) bushes, also called Flinders rose, are perennials which can tolerate both heat and cold. They are hardy plants which like arid, well-drained soil and can grow in cracks and crevices. The flowers are a very pale pink, almost white, with delicate petals and feathery stamens. Plants can survive for 25 to 30 years. In Italy, capers are cultivated in the south, mostly on the islands of Pantelleria and Salina off the coast of Sicily.
What are sold in jars are the flower buds pickled in vinegar. Here in Italy, we often see them sold loose in salt. The buds have to be picked by hand which is why they are relatively expensive. When picked, they are graded by size and the smallest, also called nonpareil, are the most desirable as they are more aromatic and have a smoother texture. When capers are cured, they release mustard oil which leads to the formation of a substance called rutin. Crystallized rutin forms the little white spots you often see on caper buds.
Caper berries are the fruits which form after the buds have flowered. They are like little olives and are milder in flavour. Recipes which call for capers cannot be substituted with caper berries. They are filled with little seeds and are usually sold pickled in vinegar with a bit of the stem still attached. They are delicious as a garnish. In biblical times, caper berries were considered to be an aphrodisiac. The Hebrew word for caper berries is abiyyonah which has the same root as the word for ‘desire’!