They contain considerable amounts of anti-oxidants and bioflavonoids, and have preventive properties against arteriosclerosis (the thickening and hardening of arteries). But the health benefits are just a welcome bonus as the main reason we love capers and add them to all sorts of dishes is the bud’s delicious aromatic and pungent flavor!
On Greek islands and all along the Mediterranean caper bushes grow wild and hang majestically on rocky cliffs over the sea. Their popularity, that peaked in recent years, dates back to ancient times. Dioscorides describes the medicinal properties of capers which are explored on a very interesting paper compiled by a group of Iranian scientists, published at the International Journal of Agriculture and Crop Sciences. “Capers are said to reduce flatulence and to be anti-rheumatic in effect. In ayurvedic medicine capers are recorded as hepatic stimulants and protectors, improving liver function,” they write. In the paper entitled “Caper the Mystique of the recent century” we read about the bud’s preventive properties against arteriosclerosis, as diuretic, and kidney disinfectant, and more interestingly the Iranian scientists claim that capers contain considerable amounts of anti-oxidants and bioflavonoids.
For us of course all these health benefits are a welcome bonus, but the main reason we love capers and add them to all sorts of salads and main courses is the bud’s aromatic and pungent flavor that so wonderfully complements all sorts of vegetable salads, and pulses–like the famous Santorini fava. Although in most blogs and books you will read that tiny capers are the best, I strongly disagree; like most Greeks I prefer the larger buds because they have more flavor and aroma.
When harvested, the caper buds, the shoots, leaves and the fruits of the shrub are bitter and need to be cured and pickled in a salt-vinegar brine. I used to get a large vat of wonderful home-pickled capers from the neighboring island of Paros, but the lady that painstakingly harvested and prepared them has grown too old for the arduous work and unfortunately she has not being able to enlist young people to help her. So this year for the first time I had to make my own capers. Since I didn’t know where to find the most productive bushes on Kea, I asked my friend, the local taxi driver Yannis Dardagos, and he kindly brought me two large bags filled with incredibly tender shoots, which I immediately pickled. Shoots are certainly easier to harvest in bulk than just buds, but equally delicious if one takes into account how delicate they are and won’t let them become mushy in a strong vinegary solution (see my pickling intructions).
For those far from our shores who cannot harvest their own buds, capers in vinegar are commonly available in supermarkets. But I suggest you opt for the salted ones, like the capers from Pantelleria, because they retain their original flavor. Salted capers need to be rinsed well under lukewarm running water and dried on paper towels before using.
On many Greek islands caper buds are also dried in the sun. Dried capers need to be soaked in warm water for about 3 hours, then blanched in boiling water, as their taste is particularly strong.
Caper berries, which look like small, elongated, dark green almond, is the fruit of the caper bush. Cured in vinegar, they are meatier and have a milder taste than capers. On Chios and other islands, they are stuffed with garlic cloves and served as an appetizer. Pickled caper shoots and leaves are also served as a meze, and are of course added to salads, pasta sauces, grilled fish, and all kinds of vegetable dishes.
See the Recipe: PICKLING CAPERS, Caper Shoots & Leaves
See the Recipe: Caper and Scallion Spread