Living in California and a frequent traveler to Mediterranean countries like Italy, Greece, France and Spain, I find capers as an ingredient on menus at all of these locations. Love veal piccata? Capers are a critical ingredient to its lemony sauce. Lox and bagels? Don’t even think of serving them without capers. Julia Child’s epiphany, sole meunière? Not possible without capers. A Greek salad? One without capers isn’t Greek at all. Many of us cook with capers (and some with caper berries), however, do you know what they really are? And, do you know the difference?
Caper plants grow wild throughout the Mediterranean
Let’s start with the basics. Capers and caper berries both come from a caper bush plant. These 3-4 foot tall bushes (with a width of 5-7 feet) grow wild in the Mediterranean landscape. In many ways these plants are like a weed, popping up everywhere, even in the most inhospitable of conditions…. thriving in the most arid and hottest of locations without any type of care. Caper plants, for example, love the cracks and crevices of centuries-old stone walls from where they often cascade down several feet, growing seemingly out of no where. They flourish often where nothing else will grow.
Capers are the unopened, unripened, buds of a caper bush. The tiniest of these unopened buds (about the size of a peppercorn) are the most prized capers as they have a better flavor and a more delicate texture than the larger ones. These baby capers are called “non pareil,” which in French translates to “has no equal.” Capers come in several sizes (the largest ones are 2-3 times the size of non pareil). The larger the caper, the more acidic and the less expensive.
When the caper flower falls off it is replaced by a fruit which is the actual caper berry
When the immature caper bud is not picked, it eventually develops into a beautiful flower. Later in the season, the flower falls off and is replaced by a fruit. This fruit is the caperberry. The oblong shaped berry, about the size of an olive, is not quite as intense in its taste as its caper relative, but it has a milder, similar flavor profile.
Capers and caperberries add a brilliant burst of flavor to many dishes. The two can be used in the same dish, or perhaps the caper utilized in the recipe and the caperberry used as a garnish? (This is especially nice if the berry is cut open so that diners can see its inside, and the berry’s stem is left intact for some showmanship in plating). This also creates a perfect opportunity for the host and hostess to explain the difference between these two delicious food products.