Capers are the small unopened buds of the Mediterranean bush, Capparis spinosa L. (syn. Capparis rupestris) which belongs to the family Capparidaceae (or Capparaceae) . It is closely related to the cabbage family, but the plant is more reminiscent of a rose bush. Capers are usually pickled in vinegar and used whole or coarsely chopped in recipes or as a garnish.
Some believe Capers are native to the Mediterranean basin, but they probably originated from the arid regions in western and central Asia. They have been used for thousands of years with mention of them as an ingredient in the Gilgamesh, possibly the oldest written story known, which was found on ancient Sumarian clay tablets and which date back to c. 2700 B.C.
They are also mentioned by Apicus, a Roman who is said to have written the very first cookery book in the 1st Century and by Dioscorides (c.40-90 AD), a pharmacologist who served as a surgeon in Nero’s armies as a “marketable product of ancient Greeks”. The ancient Greeks not only used Capers as an ingredient in cooking but also used the roots and leaves of the plant for medicinal purposes.
Cultivation of capers and Processing capers
Today, capers are found growing wild all over Mediterranean and are also cultivated in many countries including France, Spain, Italy, Morocco and Algeria.They can be grown from seed or cuttings and whilst the plants last 20 to 30 years, a full yield can only be expected in 3 to 4 years. Pruning is essential to achieve high production, as the flower buds only develop on one year old branches.
Harvesting must be carried out regularly throughout the growing season. For example, in Italy, they are handpicked every 8 to 12 days. Each bud is picked in the early morning before it can open after which they are sun-dried before processing. Fresh capers have no real appeal for culinary purposes as the taste is very bland however, after pickling in vinegar they have a strong piquant flavor. They are also sometimes preserved in salt. Before bottling, capers are often graded on a scale from ‘7’ to ’16’ millimeters. In France they are graded using the terms ‘Nonpareilles’ which are capers under 10mm and considered to be the best, and ‘Surfines’ which are usually up to 16mm.
If you grow Nasturtiums, then you can make a caper substitute by picking the immature green SEED PODS (not flower buds) and pickling them in vinegar.
Buying and Storing Capers
Capers are usually sold in small jars which can be kept in the store-cupboard until opened. Once opened, they should be stored, covered with the lid, in the refrigerator. Certainly in the UK, there has been an increase in the types of Capers sold in supermarkets in particular larger ones with stalks attached. On first glance it gives a “gourmet” appearance however, we would suggest you go for the smaller ones (minus stalks) for the best flavour and appearance in dishes.
Capers in Cooking
Salted capers should be rinsed before using to remove the excess salt and pickled capers are usually drained before use. They have a flavour which can be described as sharp, mustard-like and peppery fact, the unique flavour arises from mustard oil, methyl isothiocyanate, which is release from crushed plant tissues. Much used in Mediterranean cooking, they add tanginess to dishes such as pasta sauces, pizzas and salads and go very well with meats and fish, in particular Anchovies…very Mediterranean and are they key ingredient in Tartar sauce.
If you are lucky enough to be able to grow caper plants, the tender young shoots and baby leaves can also be eaten as a vegetable, in salads or pickled. Alternatively if you can grow Nasturtiums, then you can make a caper substitute by picking the immature green SEED PODS (not flower buds) and pickling them in vinegar.
Health benefits of capers
Being flower buds, capers are in fact very low in calories, 23 calories per 100 g. However, the spice contains many phytonutrients, anti-oxidants and vitamins essential for optimum health.
Capers are one of the plant sources high in flavonoid compounds rutin (or rutoside) and quercetin. Capers are in-fact very rich source of quarcetin (180 mg/100 g) second only to tea leaf. Both these compounds are powerful anti-oxidants. Research studies suggest that quercetin has anti-bacterial, anti-carcinogenic, analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties.
Furthermore, rutin strengthen capillaries and inhibits platelet clump formation in the blood vessels. Both these actions of rutin help in smooth circulation of blood in very small vessels. Rutin has found application in some in trial treatments for hemorrhoids, varicose veins and in bleeding conditions such as hemophilia. It also found to reduce LDL cholesterol levels in obese individuals
The spicy buds contain healthy levels of vitamins such as vitamin A, vitamin K, niacin, and riboflavin. Niacin helps lower LDL cholesterol.
Furthermore, minerals like calcium, iron, and copper are present in them. High sodium levels are because of added granular sea salt (sodium chloride).
Caper parts have been used to relieve rheumatic pain in traditional medicines.
The spicy caper pickles traditionally added to recipes as appetite stimulant. In addition, they help relieve stomachache and flatulence conditions.