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The Salty Caper

As a staple within the cuisine of the Cyclades, capers- not just the bud of the plant, but its other components as well- compliment and complete a variety of Greek dishes.

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In late spring and early summer, capers can be found crawling over almost every Greek island, but they predominantly flourish within the sparse, dry climate of the Cyclades. Here, amidst Greece’s most tourist-populated islands, the caper has been one of the staple foods within the local diet for ages.

 

You can see them everywhere, sprouting from rocks and walls, flowering along the road, always there for the plucking. You can spot them drying on the low-lying rooftops of peasant homes in places like Santorini. You can sample their distinct taste in numerous dishes throughout Greece.

In fact, capers are one of the culinary delights of the Mediterranean, found from Turkey to Spain and eaten with great relish in every country in between. Greek capers are almost always wild, while those that come from other parts of the Mediterranean, namely Spain, southern France, and Turkey are typically cultivated. Regardless of whether they grow wild or are farmed though, capers are never eaten fresh.

The puckish flavor- tart while bitter- develops only after they are pickled, for only with the advent of brine does the capric acid develop, which is what gives them their characteristic taste. Interestingly, Greece is the only Mediterranean country that boasts another way to cure capers. The Greeks often dry the delicacy in the sun until they turn pebble hard and somewhat blondish in color. These capers, a specialty of Santorini, are frequently eaten locally but not available outside the island. When consumed, they are rehydrated, most likely by being cooked in tomato sauce and then served as an accompaniment to pureed yellow split peas- a fava spread.

Capers are picked at several stages. The most cherished part of the plant is its buds, which need to be collected before they start to open. This is tedious, arduous work, and the harvest needs to be taken care of speedily, usually once a day throughout the late spring and early summer, because the buds open so rapidly.

Quality is generally ranked according size: the smaller, the better. It is no surprise that tiny French non pareilles are among the most sought-after capers in the Mediterranean.

In Greece, though, not only the buds are savored. Greeks like the leaves of the caper plant as well, which they boil and prepare. Like they often do to other wild greens, Greek villagers dress caper leaves with olive oil, vinegar, and lemon juice or pickle juice. They will serve this dish as a salad, often times with fresh summer tomatoes, olive oil and island goat’s milk cheeses.

 

Greeks also enjoy the fruit of the caper plant- the savory yield that is left behind once the plant's buds have opened and flowered. These oblong plump capers look a little bit like grapes and have a pleasantly coarse, slightly fibrous texture. They, too are pickled.

In Greece, as elsewhere in the Mediterranean, the caper appears in many different dishes.

Greek cuisine does not lay claim to the array of mayonnaise-like sauces, such as tartare and remoulade, that have become stables within French cuisine. French chefs and villagers alike will use the caper as a means of creating both flavor and texture within such sauces. Instead, Greeks use their capers as a garnish over salads that could involve barley rusks, olive oil, tomatoes, and onions. The widest range of dishes calling for capers can undoubtedly be found in the Cyclades.


The tiny berries are most commonly cooked with fish, especially salt cod. Sometimes they are made into fritters, a regional specialty of the island of Kimolos, while other times they are used to season roasted eggplant salad. Frequently they are stewed in their own right and then served, as mentioned above, with pureed yellow split peas, a specialty of Santorini.

How To Pickle Capers
Capers need to be soaked and rinsed before the pickling process begins. Leave them overnight in a large bowl of cold water and drain the next day.

 

In a large pot, bring to a boil:

1 quart (approx. 1 litre) of red wine vinegar

  • 2 tablespoons of salt

  • ½ teaspoon of fresh whole black peppercorns

Reduce heat and simmer for three minutes. Remove the vinegar from the heat and let cool. Place the strained capers in a clean mason jar and pour the vinegar over them. Seal and store for at least three months before using.

 

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