I love capers. That discrete burst of floral saltiness insures that Spaghetti Puttanesca and everything Piccata is in heavy rotation in my house, not to forget about Arroz con Pollo and Caponata. And though I’ve seen caper plants hanging off of Italian stone walls for decades I’ve never had an in-depth education on them…until now.
A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to spend a few days on the Sicilian island of Pantelleria, a kind of artisanal caper central and the only place with a caper IGP or denomination of origin. For general information on the island and how I came to be there, read this.
And I’ve always been partial to capers in salt from Pantelleria, with their mild, slightly floral flavor. Pantelleria, just the word always seemed to evoke sun washed fields near salt water splashed rocky coasts. But I’ve always seen the Pantelleria caper held aloft by salt crystals in tiny bottles, so precious. Until now. The abundance of the caper on the island is staggering. Especially if you consider that each little green ball starts as an unopened flower bud that has to be hand picked.
Caper plants are everywhere on the island. They are planted primly in sunken fields, soft branches creeping out on the reddish earth waiting for the tender buds to be harvested. The plants hang from walls and spill from terraces at every turn. The majority are the variety Spinosa, Nocellara with its soft green oval leaves set one above the other on long vines. The caper buds appear on new growth so the plant is cut back to the woody stem each year.
And those delicious caperberries? Apparently the appearance of ciunciuni, or caperberries is considered to be the ultimate sign of a careless farmer, one too lazy to pick each small caper bud off the vine. So caperberries aren’t really prized here. When they are purposely harvested they are taken off the plant half the size that we are accustomed to so as to avoid the “seediness” that’s characteristic of big caperberries. You see them bottled more frequently in salt or olive oil than in brine.
The work of picking, fermenting, and salting the capers is done by farmers organized in cooperatives. The knowledge of when to pick, how much salt to add, how long to let them ferment is ancient, going back generations. And yes, the caper is fermented. It’s a brief lactic acid fermentation brought to a halt by working in additional salt. Farmers deliver the ready product in large buckets to companies who size them, then bottle, bag, label and market domestically and abroad. The small facility we visited is Bonomo & Giglio. They pack under the names La Nicchia and Delizie Pantesche.
The Pantelleria caper has obtained an IGP due to its unique flavor profile. It is definitely milder than other capers of the same variety grown elsewhere in Sicily.
Now that I know a mature caper plant yields 1.5 kilos a season (each picked laboriously by hand), I will never use one without marveling at the commitment of those who labor on their knees to bring it tous.
Next: Caponata x 10 – The Food