While I live to eat, to be honest, I never gave capers much thought before I went to the island known as the ‘Black Pearl’ of the Mediterranean—Pantelleria. Closer to Africa than its nearest Italian neighbor, Sicily, it is a volcanic island of ancient beauty, known for capers, wines, and olive oil. A place where capers cascade down stonewalls, grow wild by the roadside, and cover carefully planted fields. In fact, many experts consider capers from Pantelleria to be the best in the world.



While there I visited a caper producer to learn about how they are cultivated, harvested and preserved. My first aha-caper-moment came when I was in the fields. I discovered the small capers I normally buy are the buds of the caper bush. Every ten days from May through September, the tiny buds are harvested by hand before they have a chance to flower. It is back-breaking work done under a hot sun. According to my guide, the volcanic soil, plant variety (noccellara), intense sun, and hydration from the ocean dew combine to give the Pantescan caper unique flavor characteristics. As he talked, I couldn’t resist, and bent over and picked one off a bush. Raw, it was crisp, tart and slightly bitter. My second aha-caper-moment? Those ubiquitous capers-on-steroids—caperberries—are actually the fruit of the plant. Bud. Flower. Fruit.



Small buds are prized, though, and I was told a farmer who allows her caper plant to flower and bear fruit might be considered lazy!

Once harvested, the capers are fermented in sea salt for 20-25 days; then they are drained, put under new salt and packaged. In the caper world, size counts. Smaller capers are prized for their crunch and are great as an accent in a dish—think smoked salmon or a salad. Medium capers have a deeper aroma, and since they are closer to flower, a bit less crisp. They are wonderful for dishes likechicken piccata, where you’d want a whole caper with a deep flavor profile. The larger ones are best used chopped in sauces, pastes and pestos.

After visiting the processing facility, I sampled the finished product. The intense tart, sweet and salty flavor of these dried capers was magnificent. To my taste buds, they packed so much more flavor than any caper I had drained a bottle to get to, and better yet, I learned that capers are loaded with anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant benefits (more reason to love the Mediterranean Diet).

If you love to cook—and eat—try the flavor pop of a high quality caper.



Warm Caponata With Toasted Almonds
Adapted from La Cucina di Pantelleria, Italo Cucci

4 eggplants
1 medium onion
2 oz black olives
2 oz minced toasted almonds
1 oz medium capers
6 oz extra-virgin olive oil
3 celery stalks
1 oz vinegar
1 tblsp tomato paste
1 tblsp of sugar
1 cup water
safflower oil to fry eggplant

Peel the eggplant and dice into ½ inch cubes, salt and let sweat for an hour. Put the sliced celery and onion in a frying pan, add the extra-virgin olive oil and cup of water and sauté over moderate heat until the water evaporates. Add the capers, olives, sugar and tomato paste and simmer for 15 minutes. Fry the eggplant drain and remove the oil, add to the other ingredients and serve with a sprinkling of minced toasted almonds.

Cherry Tomatoes, Capers and Oregano
Adapted from La Cucina di Pantelleria, Italo Cucci

1 tablespoon small salted capers, soaked rinsed and dried
1 box of cherry tomatoes
extra virgin olive oil
fresh oregano
salt and pepper to taste

Cut the cherry tomatoes into halves, drizzle with the olive oil and season with the capers, salt pepper and fresh oregano.

I originally wrote this article for the food section of BlogHer