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Food in the 'Hood

The Wild Caper

 

As I embarked on this project, my wife, Peggy, mentioned that capers, the subject of my quest, were central to tartar sauce. She was right. To my surprise, I learned that capers are a common ingredient in recipes for the dish. I realized what an asset capers are to tartar sauce. Gastronomer Nigel Slater explains their contribution: “In one knife-sharp hit, this sauce of mayonnaise, gherkins, mustard and capers continually sharpens an appetite that would be soon be dulled after mouthful after mouthful of crumbed or battered food.” Capers add zip to this basic accompaniment to fish, just as they spark the smoked salmon and herring of Scandinavia.

Most cultures, even ones without a reputation for spices, seem to desire some sort of verve in their food. The English, for example, were avid for capers. In the 18th century they developed a creamy caper sauce to go with lamb or mutton. During Tudor and Stuart times, merchants imported barrels of capers. When capers were unavailable, cooks replaced them with buds of nasturtium or of the broome shrub. Desperate for capers, some turned to a recipe from Mary Eaton’s The Cook and Housekeeper’s Complete and Universal Dictionary (1822): “An excellent substitute for capers may be made of pickled green peas, nasturtions, or gherkins, chopped in similar size, and boiled with melted butter.”

The source of these tangy pleasures is a spiny shrub that originated in the arid terrain of Central Asia and is now especially prevalent in the Mediterranean. The caper is the green closed bud of this plant. The bush grows well in harsh soil and in hot, dry climates. They often grow wild along the Mediterranean coast, thriving on the salty air. The sprawling shrub sinks its roots deep in cracks in the ground and in rocky crevices. It clutches old walls and clings to ruins. Caper bushes were found growing in the Roman coliseum and springing up along Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

The farmers of Pantellaria, a tiny island between Sicily and North Africa, cultivate an exquisite caper on the volcanic slopes of this hot, windblown land. The plant flourishes between the black lava rocks.

The preparation of capers for market is a delicate, laborious task. In the early morning during the growing season, typically between May and August, workers gently pick the flower buds. They search for the smallest, tightest ones, which are considered the choicest (often referred to as “non pareil”). They must also move gingerly to avoid being scraped by the protective thorns that frequently guard the buds. The Turks aptly refer to the caper as the “cat’s claw.” The caper is also known as the Flinders rose because of the similarity of the two plants.

Time is at a premium during the harvest period. The buds must be picked quickly before they open up. (After budding the caper displays white and purple flowers). To avoid spoiling, they then have to be immediately steeped in drums of salty brine. Further curing and pickling is required for the caper, which contains mustard oil, to lose its bitterness and to achieve a pleasing pungency. Ultimately, the buds are packed for shipment in salt (the ideal preservative for flavor) or vinegar.

The caper has a rich, ancient tradition. It was esteemed even more for its medicinal rewards than for its piquant taste. Clay tablets dating from 130 BC that were found in Crete revealed that capers were used to flavor olive oil. The Greeks, who imbued sauces and stews with capers, believed the bud to be a remedy for rheumatism, flatulence, and other ills. The Roman naturalist Pliny recommended eating capers to ward off palsy and spleen ache. Capers, recent research has shown, are rich in antioxidants and vitamin C.

Other cultures have also held them in high regard. The  Frenchman Ambroise Paré, a Renaissance physician, observed that “capers are good in that they sharpen the appetite and relieve bile.” In the 17th century, Evlya Çelebi, who wrote of her travels in Turkey, extolled the caper: “This pickle is very beneficial since it heals diseases and makes one sprightly, fit, and energetic.”

Southern Italians and Sicilians have taken to the caper with gusto. The 18th century Neapolitan author Vincenzo Corrado was enthusiastic about the bud’s versatility. The caper is a “good condiment, not only for salads, salumi but with cold foods, sauce, in meat ragu, in both stuffings with or without meat.”

The cooks of the region excel at marrying the invigorating caper with other strong, assertive flavors. My favorite version of pasta puttanesca (“prostitute’s pasta”) is made with a sauce laden with capers, olives, anchovies, and garlic. (The more familiar presentation of the dish comes also comes with a tomato sauce.) Cookbook author Paula Wolfert suggests adding raisins and pinenuts, hallmarks of Sicilian cuisine. Ladies of the evening, the story goes, whipped up this plate for a quick, hearty repast between clients.

Sicily’s classic relish, caponata, is unthinkable without capers. Sweet and sour, it is a blend of olives, tomatoes, eggplant, and capers, enhanced with a little sugar and vinegar. Other Mediterranean regions have also made ingenious use of the bud. In Provence, a paste is made from pounding olives, capers, and anchovies.  Tapenade, which gets its name from the regional dialect’s word for caper, is a delightful tangy and salty spread.

Some are still unpersuaded of the caper’s virtues. In one episode of” The Sopranos,” the family’s Russian maid pointed to a jar of capers in the refrigerator and declared, “Special capers from Italy. Soprano kids don’t  like them.”

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Craving Capers?

Litteri (517 Morse St., NE; 202-544-0183), a venerable Italian grocery store founded in Washington in 1926, carries four brands of capers, three in vinegar and one in salt, in addition to a host of condiments, meats, cheeses, canned goods, and other  products.

Pizzeria Paradiso (2003 P St., NW; 202-223-1245) offers capers as one of their varied pie toppings. Two pizzas, the Napoletana and the Siciliana, feature the buds. Look for capers in their Giardiniera salad.

Vace (3315 Conn. Ave., NW; 202-63-1999), an Italian food purveyor, carries Paesana capers preserved in vinegar and the Blaria brand which packs them in salt. The shop also offers the Comtorno brand of caponata.

 

Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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