Try This Caper on for Sighs

The delicate buds of the caper bush are flavor enhancers that, once pickled, you won’t want to miss.

| October/November 2001

  • Photo by Gwen Barclay

  • Photo by Gwen Barclay

“What are these little green things?” people sometimes ask when we serve a delicate lemon sauce with fish or chicken. Those green things floating around are capers, which add a piquant flavor and garnish to a simple sauce.

Capers are small, pale green, unopened flower buds of the caper bush (Capparis spinosa). The buds are pickled in a solution of vinegar and salt that acts both to preserve them and instigate a chemical reaction that makes them more palatable. This is much like the curing process of olives. The slightly bitter flavor of pickled capers is often described as similar to the taste of goat’s-milk cheese.

Where do those little buds come from?

Capers are harvested from the caper bush that grows wild throughout the Mediterranean area in the south of France, Spain, and in Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, and Asia Minor. Capers are also cultivated in U.S. Zones 8 and above. Waverly Root, in his treatise Food (Simon and Schuster, 1980), suggests that capers were not originally prevalent in any of these regions, but were more likely native to the Sahara Desert.

The caper bush seems designed for desert existence and is known in North Africa as the Sahara caper tree. The plant remains green with juicy leaves and stems even when the soil is very dry. It is believed that the leaves absorb moisture from the humidity of the night air.

There are several grades of capers. Provence, in the south of France, leads the list in producing the highest-quality small buds, known as nonpareils. They are about 1/8 inch in size. The caper buds must be picked by hand each day because the buds develop weekly, which is what makes them so expensive. The size of the unopened bud determines its price. The smallest qualify as nonpareils and are sold at top price. Surfines, capucines, fines, and capotes follow in increasing order of size and diminishing value.

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