Caper - near Kalidonia, north west Crete
West Crete Journal, August 2005


Origin: Asia
Capparis spinosa

Capers are the small unopened buds of the Mediterranean bush, Capparis spinosa. 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.

Capers 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.

Today, capers are found growing wild all over Mediterranean and are also cultivated in many countries including France, Spain, Italy, Morocco and Algeria. Harvesting must be carried out regularly throughout the growing season. In Italy, they are hand picked 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. Pruning is essential to achieve high production, as the flower buds only develop on one year old branches.

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 flavour. They are also sometimes preserved in salt.

They have a flavour which can be described as sharp, mustard-like and peppery. The unique flavour arises from mustard oil, methyl isothiocyanate. 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.  The tender young shoots and baby leaves can also be eaten as a vegetable, in salads or pickled.

In Crete they are traditionally collected in early Summer, and once preserved can keep for up to a year if kept in a cool dark place in the house.