What is a Caper?

Last month, I visited a caper farm and a capperificio – or caper producer – on Pantelleria, a small island in the Mediterranean that is renowned for the quality of its capers. The capers of Pantelleria have a delicate, floral flavor that is a result of the the fertile volcanic soil, arid conditions, and a special varietal of caper unique to the island. Here is a little of what I saw on my trip:

Flower power
Capers are the unopened flower buds of a short, spindly bush that grows wild on rocky terrain throughout the Mediterranean.  On Pantelleria farmers also cultivate caper plants in fields. The two small green balls at the bottom of the above photo are capers. In the middle of the photo is a caper that’s starting to blossom.

Picked by hand
From mid-May to the end of August, a caper farmer hand picks each caper plant every ten days or so: he collects the fresh buds, and plucks and discards any blossoming flowers. The harvest starts each day around four A.M. and continues until about ten in the morning. After a siesta to avoid the worst of the hot afternoon, the harvest resumes for a few hours in the evening.

Raw capers aren’t all that appetizing. They taste kind of like a green pea, but much more bitter and with a peppery bite like arugula. No one eats raw capers; they’re all cured. In other parts of the Mediterranean, the curing may involve vinegar or a salty brine, but on Pantelleria the capperifici use only sea salt. The salt curing helps to highlight the aroma of the capers, which may be masked by vinegar. After about three weeks, the salt is drained from the capers. Then the capers sorted into three sizes: small (about the size of a pencil eraser), medium, and large (about the size of a blueberry). The capers are then packed in new sea salt and stored in enormous barrels for keeping until they are packaged to order.