This column accompanies this recipe.
You know you’re dealing with an ingredient with a deep pedigree when it was written about in Apicius, the ancient Roman cookbook whose authorship is uncertain. Whether or not he was a real person (scholarly opinions vary greatly), let’s presume Apicius was Marcus Gavius Apicius, a Roman gourmet who lived during the time of Tiberius, rather than Caelius Apicius, which Wikipedia asserts is “an invention based on the fact that one of the two manuscripts is headed with the words “API” “CAE”. While academics bicker and get into a bit of a froth over all that, let’s dip into Apicius to see what “he”, or they, said about this week’s Main Ingredient topic: the strange little green pickles we know as capers.
Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome wrote of capers being included in a sauce for boiled ray (fish), and in a “boiled dinner” that comprised such diverse ingredients as pennyroyal, pignolia nuts, honey, cheese, cucumber, mint, celery, eggs, chicken livers and soaked bread. Apicius also cited capers in “a mince of seafood” alongside sea nettles, fish, leek heads, coriander, lovage, “origany”, and the sauce bound with eggs and strained over fish cakes.
More recently, in 1722, Joseph Miller in his Botanicum Officinale wrote that capers “are accounted a wholesome Pickle, pleasant and grateful to the Stomach, help the Appetite, provoke Urine, and are good against the Spleen and Jaundice. The Bark of the Root is heating and drying, opens Obstructions of the Liver and Spleen, is good in hypocondriac Disorders, and helps the Rickets”. (sic)
Not surprisingly, then, capers remain endemic to the Mediterranean region to this day. Capers and olives have much in common, being popular in the Mediterranean cuisines both north and south, east and west; and there are many dishes in Italy and Greece, in the Levant and beyond, which prize them as an ingredient of a pasta, a salad, a sauce, or a paste. Further afield they’re paired with smoked salmon (and for that matter in a sauce for grilled fresh salmon), with ham, with tuna (add a few crushed capers to a tuna mayo sandwich), with baked fish along with tomatoes and garlic, in a puttanesca sauce, and with veal (Italy’s veal piccata).
They’ve been called the anchovies of the vegetable world, so think of capers when making a variation on an olive tapenade, along with garlic, salt and of course plenty of olive oil. They’re also a key ingredient of tartar sauce along with mayonnaise, other pickles and dill. They marry well with onion too, so stir some chopped capers into a sauce for grilled fish or chicken, starting by sauteing chopped onions, deglazing with wine and reducing that, then cooking it down with cream and stirring in some chopped capers.
The leaves of the caper bush can be blanched, drained and used in salads, but since we don’t live in the countries abutting the Mediterranean, we’re unlikely to find the leaves. Nasturtium buds are sometimes pickled and used as a caper substitute, not only because it’s a close flavour match but they look much alike as well. And of course young nasturtium leaves are edible and delicious too.
Then there is the caper’s bigger cousin, the caperberry. Caperberries are not just bigger capers with stems. They are the same thing, from the same plant (the caper bush), but at different stages of their development. The caper is the fledgling flower bud, arrested in its early development and pickled. The flower, in the unlikely event that it is actually allowed to flower, is a magnificent spiky white and pink bloom.
The caperberry on the other hand has been allowed to reach maturity, so it is the fruit that results if capers are left alone. Wikipedia tells us that caper buds are picked in the morning while still young, as smaller ones fetch a higher price. Caperberries, meanwhile, though they have been allowed to mature, are nevertheless picked before the fruit is fully grown. It is the hard seeds within them that preclude any marketing of the full grown fruit; they’re pretty awful to eat.
The young capers in fact have a sizing system, graded from nonpareil (up to 7mm) to surfines (7-8mm), capucines (8-9mm), capotes (9-11mm), fines (11-13mm), and grusas (14mm and above). Beyond that weight it is left to flower and produce the fruit that becomes the caperberry if picked young enough.
The capers we see in South African stores are almost invariably the pickled variety, but you can get them salted too. More often than not they are cured in vinegar and salt, sometimes in wine and salt, and sometimes only in salt.
I find it interesting that caperberries, when they were launched on the local market some years ago, were marketed in a way that suggested they were somehow superior to capers. They look grand, with their stems, usually with a cool curve to it, that makes them a great way to garnish a dish that contains either capers or caperberries. But the flavour is considerably stronger, and this means that the caperberry must inescapably rank among those ingredients that either turn the consumer on or off; like blue cheese, they’re not for the middle ground.
The caper is at its best when balanced with contrasting ingredients. It is splendid when mixed with butter, say, and used as a baste or sauce for fish or chicken, such as the dish I made the other day that used both capers and caperberries. DM/TGIFood
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