Capers are the pickled flower buds of the caper plant. Eating flower buds isn’t so weird; a quick internet search pulls up guides and recipes. However, the unique thing about the caper is that if you allow the flower buds to bloom, the plant will produce a fruit: the caperberry. So why would we prefer to eat the flower bud to the fruit? Why are capers better than caperberries?
When I was on Pantelleria last month, I asked farmers, caper producers, and caper lovers that question. Here’s what I learned:
Caperberries aren’t a luscious, sweet fruit. On Pantelleria, both capers and caperberries are preserved in salt for three to four weeks before they’re ready to be used. After that time, the capers and berries can be kept for months or years. After curing, the flavor of capers and caperberries is similar, though capers tend to be more delicate and have a more floral flavor. I’ve also noticed that caperberries need more rinsing to get rid of the excess saltiness in their flavor.
The best caperberries are small: they ought to be less than an inch long and at most a centimeter wide. However, they can grow to be quite large: in the photo above, the fat green berry in the middle of the photo is probably an inch in diameter (compare it to the size of the caper buds just to its left!). No matter what size the berry is, it’s going to be jam-packed full of seeds. As the berry gets larger, the seeds do, too, creating a gritty, unpleasant texture. Capers, by contrast, don’t have any seeds, and the best ones have a nice firm pop when you bite them.
On Pantelleria, the preference for capers over caperberries has led to certain taboo against the berries. Any berry or flower seen growing on a caper plant is a sign that the farmer wasn’t thorough in tending his fields and picking his capers. Flowers and berries are thus considered shameful: a sign of a lazy farmer. When farmers harvest capers (and berries), they’ll also pluck and discard any blossomed flowers.