In the Mediterranean culinary tradition there exists an ingredient called capers. Small, green, and fuzzy with a slightly astringent and pungent taste, capers add a special piquancy to any dish.  But what exactly are they?

 

Capers are actually the unripe, unopened, green flower buds of a prickly plant called capparis spinosa. Native to the Mediterranean area (mostly southern France, Italy, and Algeria), buds of this wild and uncultivated plant has been a part of that region’s culinary tradition since at least 1200 BC. In fact, the first recorded use of capers is in the Sumerian cuneiform Gilgamesh, which gives one of the earliest accounts of the story of Noah and the ark.

 

The cultivation of capers is a time-intensive process. Every morning, pickers must wait and watch to ensure that each bud is picked at the precise moment it reaches the proper size. Desired sizes can range from tiny (around the size of a peppercorn) to small (around the size of an olive). The larger the bud, the stronger the flavor. However, the smallest buds are the most aromatic. In fact, one of the most prized varieties of capers is the minuscule nonpareil, from the South of France.

 

After the buds are picked, they are laid out to dry in the sun. Once dried, the buds are pickled in vinegar, wine, brine, or salt in order to bring out a more lemony, tangy flavor.

 

Capers can be used as a garnish for meats and vegetables or added to sauces, condiments, salads, and dressings to create a certain sour and salty flavor. Try adding capers to some of your favorite Mediterranean dishes in order to bring out the special flavor of that region.