Beijing, 7 June 2014
It never ceases to amaze me that there are certain ingredients which one adds to recipes in small quantities but which make a huge difference to the final taste. Spices are the obvious example – although I often wish that the hot spices had never existed – but there are others. Parsley, for instance, or coriander, or anise. Or capers.
Capers are a particular favourite of mine ever since a business trip I made many years ago to Malta. I was there to do an environmental audit of a factory. After a long day of inspecting the wastewater treatment plant, the waste segregation area, the toxic chemicals storage area, and I don’t know what else, my colleagues and I were finally free for dinner. We left the hotel and wandered around, but it was a dead time of the year and there wasn’t much available. We finally came across a modest restaurant, which proclaimed itself to be a fish restaurant. Why not? we said, after all, we were in an island, presumably the fish would be good. And it was, it was! We all ordered Orata al cartoccio, where a bream is cooked – steamed in its own juices, really – in a closed aluminium foil package together with cherry tomatoes, capers, and olives. It’s really a very simple recipe. Having washed and cleaned the bream, you lay it on a big piece of aluminium foil, you place a little rosemary inside the fish, drizzle it with olive oil, place the sliced cherry tomatoes, rinsed capers, and olives around the bream, wet the whole with a little white wine, wrap up the foil and close it well (so that none of the juices escape), and cook it in the oven at 200°C for about 45 minutes. Voilà!
Simple, but absolutely delicious. The capers in particular impart a taste to the fish’s flesh which even to this day, after all these years, I can summon up at will for my private delectation.
The marvelous effect of the capers was actually quite a surprise to me. I had first come across capers as a young boy, at my English grandmother’s house. At some earlier moment, my elder brother had evinced a love of capers, so every time he came to stay with her she bought a small jar of them. This time, I was in tow so I got to try some. Salty! So salty! How could anyone like these tiny balls of salt? I made sure to steer clear of them after that, pushing them carefully aside if I came across them in a salade Niçoise, for instance. Until that fateful encounter in a modest fish restaurant in Malta. Such is life …
After that gastronomic epiphany in Malta, I feel that I owe it to the caper to write its hagiography, which like all good hagiographies should start from its birth. The caper comes from a bush, the caper bush to be precise, capparis spinosa. The bush is not much to write home about. Here is an example from the island of Salina, one of the Eolian Islands off the north-west coast of Sicily
and here’s another from near Brindisi in southern Italy
Both pictures admirably depict the poor, rocky soils and harsh environments that the bush grows well in. They also tell us that you find the bush around the Mediterranean. But that’s not only place you find C. spinosa; the bush has quite a wide range, down through eastern Africa, across central, southern, and southeastern Asia, all the way out to the Pacific Islands and Australia. But as far as I know, and I’m very willing to be corrected, the caper is not used in the local cuisine in any of these areas.
The last picture also tells us that the bush sports flowers. Small, but actually very lovely, with a cluster of long mauve stamens reaching out to the world (this is one of many beautiful photos of the caper flower on the internet; the efforts of my photographic e-friends have turned me quite poetic).
This last picture also modestly introduces us to the hero our story. Because the caper is that green flower bud behind. It gets picked, salted, and pickled for our delight. I think it deserves a picture of its own
I have to say, I always marvel at things like this. How did the women in some far-off time think of picking the flower buds of this bush to eat? (I’m sure it was the women; the men were just lazing around the camp fire cracking stupid jokes and farting.) Maybe desperation, to stave off starvation. Or maybe … but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Capers are sold sorted by size. Either because the French got into the game of commercializing capers before anyone else, or because some canny marketer thought French names would sell better, or for some other reason unknown to me, the grades mostly have French names. From smallest to biggest we have: “non-pareil”, incomparable; “surfine”, very delicate (those hideously salty little balls which my grandmother bought for my brother must have been either surfines or non-pareils); “capucine”, which is a little pointed cowl, like the ones worn by Franciscans nuns – looking at the photo below and squinting a little, I suppose you could say that the capers in question look cowl-like; “capote”, which is a rather bigger cowl with a definite point (it is also French slang for a condom for reasons which I’m sure the readers can divine after a little bit of thought); “fine”, delicate (like the oysters). And at the very end of the grades we have “grusas”, which is not a French word. My guess is that it’s Provençal and has a meaning similar to the Spanish “gruesos”, fatty. Of course, the French were not going to use their delicate language for such a coarse member of the caper family. As one could guess from the grading nomenclature, the smallest sizes are considered to be the most desirable; I’m sure it is no coincidence that the smallest sizes come from southern France …
Malta brought me my culinary epiphany with the caper. It also introduced me to the caper berry, which I find to be a much more delicious product of the caper bush. My Italian colleague, whom I have had cause to mention in an earlier post as the person who introduced me to durian, was with me on this Maltese environmental audit. Rather than asking the staff of the wastewater treatment plant to see the data on wastewater treatment efficiency he asked them to get him several jars of pickled Maltese caper berries. On the promise of my not revealing this professional faux-pas of his he shared one of the jars with me, which I took home to my wife. We have been hooked ever since.
As the name suggest, caper berries are the fruit of the caper bush. This photo shows the berry in its natural state.
I understand they are perfectly edible, although I have never seen them sold in a shop. I’ve only eaten the pickled variety. They are much bigger than capers, less salty, more crunchy (because of the seeds they contain) and can be eaten as a snack – and my wife and I have indeed snacked happily and often on them, in front of the TV or other such snack-happy locations.
Coming back to my meditation on how anyone ever came up with the idea of pickling flower buds to eat, I suspect the path was through the berry: step 1 – eat the berries; step 2 – salt the berries to preserve the excedent harvest before they rot; step 3 – hang on, why don’t we try the same thing with the flower buds?
My in-depth research (i.e., Wikipedia) has revealed to me that in Greece and Cyprus they also eat the pickled leaves of the caper bush.
This I have never tried. I read that they are particularly used in salads and fish dishes. A web-site called Good Greek Stuff proclaims that “these tangy cured leaves of the caper plant are less salty than the buds, and lend a citrusy undertone to such foods as Greek country salad, dakos (barley rusks with tomato, olive oil and feta), fish sauces, and cabbage slaws. It gives an astringent, piquant note to herb pestos and pasta dishes. And you’ll be amazed at what it does to the humble spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino or how well it works as a garnish to fried squid.”
I have another culinary epiphany awaiting me in some Greek island.
Orata, pomodorini, capperi, olive: http://www.cucinanonnapapera.it/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/PICT1017.jpg [in http://www.cucinanonnapapera.it/?p=464%5D
Caper flower buds: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caper#mediaviewer/File:%E1%83%99%E1%83%90%E1%83%9E%E1%83%90%E1%83%A0%E1%83%98_Capparis_spinosa_Kapernstrauch.JPG [in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caper%5D
Caper berries-natural state: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_Okhm7AjHzv8/R1kZdfwxBCI/AAAAAAAAAac/Eu8RWxYi6f4/s320/e-caperberries.jpg [in http://medcookingalaska.blogspot.com/2007/12/recipes-caper-tart-capers-and-eggs.html%5D
Caper leaves: http://eshop-santorini.gr/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/9df78eab33525d08d6e5fb8d27136e95/k/a/kaparofilla-caper-leaves.jpg [in http://eshop-santorini.gr/index.php/authentic-food-1/more/santorini-wild-capers-1.html%5D