"…a crystal, a flower, a sea shell stands out from the common disorder of perceptible things. For us they are privileged objects, more intelligible to the view, although more mysterious upon reflection, than all those which we see indiscriminately.
They present us with a strange union of ideas: order and fantasy, invention and necessity, law and exception."
An unopened jar of salt-cured capers reminded me of Valéry’s eloquent musings on the nature of things. The immature flower buds of the Capparis Spinosa plant seem to fit Valéry’s description of mysterious objects – that inside those dark salt-covered orbs are brightly colored flower blossoms, fragrant and unruly with long stamens and floppy petals. Its secret only revealed once macerated, when an earthy citrus flavor is expressed, followed by a floral overtone. As in music, it is the overtone that shapes one’s perception…one’s tastes.
Much effort goes into making this immature flower bud attain a second life. Fortunately, the Greeks have mastered the craft of collecting and preserving the caper, as well as making use of all parts of its armature, the caperbush. In 319 BCE the Greek writer Theophrastus wrote about the caperbush in his seminal work Enquiry into Plants in which he describes the plant and what it needs to thrive. In addition he notes the caperbushes’, "[unwillingness] to grow on cultivated land." Now having tasted both cultivated and wild capers, it is certainly clear that nature does a better job than man in this respect. Theophrastus describes how in general cultivated plants are, "smoother, smaller and less succulent." Here, I certainly agree.
Upon harvest, the caper bud is vegetal in flavor; however, with the introduction of vinegar, salt or dehydration, an intense flavor develops as mustard oil (glucocapparin) is released from each caper bud. This enzymatic reaction also leads to the formation of rutin often seen as those crystallized white spots on the surfaces of individual caper buds. Rutin is a powerful antioxidant bioflavonoid proven to search out super-oxide radicals in the body. Perhaps this explains the Ancient Greeks’ understanding of the caperbush as a vital medicinal plant. Rutin also contributes to the characteristic flavor of the cured caper.
Having reviewed a number of brining and curing recipes, it became clear to me that all are labor-intensive and require what the Greeks refer to as makrothumia ("long-fuse" or patience). As one could imagine, tending to a thorny shrub every 8 days, and quickly harvesting caper buds before they open in the morning sun, requires a certain stamina and mental fortitude… the women tend to do this work. After the harvest, capers are preserved in three ways: with salt, sunshine or vinegar.
On the Islands
On the Greek island of Santorini, sunshine is the chosen method. Capers are dried in the sun until they are rock hard like dried chick peas. When ready to use they are soaked overnight. They are most often found in traditional stews made with tomatoes and onions. These capers have an intense flavor different from that of capers preserved in vinegar. According to most recipes, pickled capers can be substituted for dried if they are soaked overnight to remove the vinegar.
Salt-cured capers from the Cycladic islands also have a most intense and floral bouquet. Without the vinegar, the flavors remain pungent and earthy, but these capers also need to soak in cool water for at least thirty minutes to reveal the traces of minerals, herbs and aromas that are present. Much easier to attain are the capers preserved in brine or vinegar. Fortunately, the Greek version of these capers tastes delicious, with a firm and flavorful bite. Perhaps it is because Greek capers are cured without preservatives or because they are harvested from the wild that they have a clarity and clearness of flavor that most capers from other regions often do not. There is also a strong association between the caperbush and the sea: it thrives along a coast, something Greece hardly lacks.