The caper bush has always grown wild throughout the Mediterranean basin, and started to be cultivated by the Italians in the 13th century. The French showed their interest in the 16th century, with the Spanish following suit in the 19th century. This activity spread to Morocco in the 20th century, and the country has become one of the leading exporters, together with Spain and France.
However, capers were already being used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. They were mostly appreciated in fish dishes and were also used to flavor sauces.
There is a recipe in La Varenne's Le cuisinier françois (1651) for beef shank soup containing capers. Massialot’s Le cuisinier royale, published in 1691, features a sauce, Ramolade, which is made from anchovies, chopped capers, and parsley.
The smaller the caper, the better it is.
They are graded according to size:
Lilliput: 1–5 mm
Non-pareil: 6–7 mm
Surfine: 7–8 mm
Capucine: 8–9 mm
Capote: 9–11 mm
Fine: 11–12 mm
Grusa: >12 mm
Capers from Sicily or the Aeolian Islands are among the best. Those from the island of Pantelleria have PGI status. They are dry salted.
Whatever the grade, capers are sold in 100–300 g jars, buckets (300 g–5 kg), and even in barrels, either in vinegar or brine.
Capers preserved in olive oil are naturally less acidic than those pickled in vinegar.
The same goes for caper berries.
Pantelleria capers also come in an unsalted version, preserved in olive oil.
In order to neutralize their sometimes overwhelming acidity, capers should be rinsed before use.
They are one of the ingredients for tapenade and are used to season a number of Mediterranean dishes, particularly those containing tomato, anchovies, and olives, with which they form a harmonious partnership.
They are an essential part of vitello tonnato and many pizzas such as quattro stagioni.
However, capers also go very well with fish, meat (such as steak tartar), poultry, pasta, and rice. They give life to salads and sauces, like tartar sauce, and go well with mustard or horseradish.
Caper berries are crunchy and make a good substitute for dill pickles.
Capers are stored in their jar (or bucket) at room temperature.
Capers were used for medicinal purposes in the past, and were attributed with the power to cure stomach ache and sciatica, among other ailments. They were also thought to be an aphrodisiac. However, none of these virtues has ever been confirmed by scientific studies.
Their acidity may be harmful to people who suffer from heartburn.
These are the flower buds. They are harvested by hand between May and October when they are light or dark green, just before the flowers open.
The capers are graded and washed before their stalks are removed and the best are selected. They are then soaked in brine or dry salted in barrels, where they remain for about one week.
After rinsing, they are pickled in vinegar, where they stay for a varying length of time.
They can also be preserved in olive oil.
These are the fruit of the caper bush. They are oval in shape and have the same flavor as capers.
They are picked, processed, and brined in the same way, then preserved in salt, vinegar, or olive oil.