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Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Finest Capers are Sicilian

While capers have become an indispensable part of every foodie’s pantry, some may neither know that Sicily makes la crema de la crema of capers, nor how caper berries differ from capers.  For certain, few know of caper leaves.

Most caper lovers are aware that these culinary gems are actually edible flower buds of a bush.  Their wild bushes thrive in the Mediterranean, so it’s no surprise that Morocco, Spain and Turkey produce the bulk of the world’s capers.  While there are many countries from the tropics (where capers are thought to have originated) to Europe that produce the delectable buds,  the ones from Sicily are the most prized among the globe’s most sophisticated chefs.

Sicilian capers are packed in sea salt versus their briny counterparts from other parts of the world that are preserved in an acidic solution.   Packed in salt?  Don’t despair, as soaking them for five minutes in water will rid them of any salty taste.  Whereas a brine overwhelms capers, the Sicilian salt-cured technique produces delicately flavored morsels.  It’s no wonder in Sicily why their versatile, tantalizing capers appear in everything from antipasto, to pasta, and even gelato.

A few other important facts about capers:  less is more. The smaller the caper, the more concentrated the flavor.  Check out  the jar of capers in your frig or cabinet.  The label most likely will say “non-pareil.”  The smallest size of capers are called non-pareil.  Most capers sold in the US are non-pareil.  The general rule of thumb is the smaller the size, the better (and more expensive) the caper.

Another interesting note:  if the caper bud is not picked, it flowers and then produces a fruit called a caper berry.  Caper berries are significantly larger (the size of the average olive) and considerably milder in flavor.  They are also far less acidic.  One of the best salads we had on our recent Wine-Knows private yacht trip through the Greek Islands, was a salad made with caper berries.   The salad’s ripe tomatoes were acidic and the caper berries were the perfect match to downplay the dish's already acid profile.

But, hold on to your hat!  While Sicily may produce the best capers, Greece provides another addition to the caper's culinary prowess.  Greeks use caper leaves in many of their salads and fish dishes.  These tiny leaves of the caper bus, preserved in salt or a brine, are rarely seen outside of Greece so is you do spot a jar buy everyone you can.  They are the most delicate of all the caper bush's gifts and add an interesting, almost lemon-like component.  I would not be the least bit surprised if caper leaves don't become the next hottest gourmet product in the US.

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