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Pantelleria capers, delectable flowers
Capers are the flower buds of the Capparis Spinosa plant. It is a bushy shrub which blossoms between the months of May and September. It hardly reaches a height of 50 cm and it has small and dark leaves, as well as big and white flowers. You can eat everything from this plant: buds - i.e. capers -, fruits called caper berries, as well as caper leaves.
Pantelleria: volcanic soil and tradition
Capers from Pantelleria are the most refined capers and have obtained the Protected Geographical Indication label in 1996. Geographic location is what makes these capers so special and the island of Pantelleria is a truly unique place.
The soil is volcanic, the climate is extremely arid, the rain is practically non-existent and the winds are gusting. When you describe it like that, it doesn’t seem optimal, but this island, located 110 km off the coast of Sicily and 65 km off the coast of Tunisia, is actual heaven on earth. The caper plant has found its home here, where it is perfectly exposed to the sun. It is planted on terrace soils, usually around the edges of vineyards, to respect the traditional agricultural landscape.
Caper harvest and processing
PGI capers from Pantelleria are harvested exclusively by hand between the months of May and September and, given the arid climate of the island, only in the early mornings and in the evenings. This task does not allow any mistakes and the harvest must be well timed. The caper is the plant bud which has just sprouted and if you wait too long to pick it, the flower opens and you can say goodbye to capers.
That’s another difficult thing about hand-picking capers: apart from the heat and the uncomfortable position - the caper plant is really short -, you also need to be careful and not miss the right moment: the early bird catches the worm… and the capers.
Once they have been picked, capers are laid on towels in the shadow. They have to lose all accumulated heat, while they wait for the right moment to be processed, without undergoing any sudden thermal shocks. So much care and attention goes into this tiny product!
Then the processing itself starts. Capers are put in a tin and left to ripe for 10 days in coarse sea salt which must amount to roughly 40% of the caper weight. As you may know, salt draws moisture out of food; the water coming out of capers melts some of the salt, forming a very saturated brine.
Capers are regularly stirred during this first step and are drained after ten days. Then they are ready to undergo the second salting and the ripening processes. They are packed again in sea salt for ten days, which, this time around, amounts to 20% of their weight, and they are stirred again. After this second maturation period, capers are at the peak of their sensory properties and are ready to be packaged.
Caper berries are the fruit of the caper plant. If capers are not picked and the buds open, the caper plant blossoms. The fruit grows from the flower and after one week more or less, caper berries are ready to be picked.
Time is very important here, too: if we wait too long, the grains inside the fruit will become too hard and you will feel them when you’re eating capers. Caper berries are picked between July and August only by hand.
Just like capers, caper berries cannot be eaten if they have not been previously packed in coarse sea salt. After ripening, they are stirred and drained. Once they are ready, they are desalted and then they are ready to be packaged.
Pantelleria caper berries are different from capers coming from different areas, since they do not have the stem. As a matter of fact, traditional harvest dictates that the peduncle - the stem - should remain attached to the plant.
The caper plant has tender leaves. Caper leaves are the least well known caper product outside of Sicily and it truly is a pity, since these leaves are very flavourful and crunchy. You can find them often in Greece, in salads or as a side dish to meat or fish. They have a slightly sour taste which creates a very nice contrast with their sapidity. They are picked in September, when the smaller and tender leaves with a beautiful dark green colour are selected.
photo credits - La Nicchia Pantelleria
How to choose capers from Pantelleria?
On the market, you can find capers, caper leaves and caper berries packed in salt, in oil and, unfortunately, in vinegar, too. Salt is the main food preservation method and does not alter its sensory properties. You just need to rinse capers to get rid of excess salt, and they are ready to be used.
Italian extra virgin olive oil is also an ideal preservation method which does not dry food out. What about vinegar? No, it’s not a good choice. If the product is tasty, there is no need to enhance its flavour with vinegar, unless the product is not that great after all.
The caper factory La Nicchia, founded in Pantelleria in 1949, offers excellent products, respecting the land and local traditions. Besides capers packed in extra virgin olive oil and capers packed in salt, the company also makes innovative and tempting products, such as crispy capers that are desalted and dried with a dehydration machine, or freeze-dried capers.
The caper salt is an incredible product, a true flavour explosion. It is the sea salt used to ripe capers, which contains the capers’ vegetable water locking the aroma in.
Caper berries and caper leaves packed in oil, several types of pâtés and pestos complement the assortment of this caper factory which is also a farm and an artisan workshop.
Flavour and flavour combinations
Caper flowers are very beautiful and are ideal to put in a salad, for example. They taste excellent on their own or as a side dish to meat and fish; they are also delicious battered and fried.
Caper berries are less scented than capers (which are, after all, flowers!), but they are fleshier and more sapid. They are usually eaten on their own or as a complement to a cold cut or a cheese platter. Try to use them instead of capers to make the traditional vitello tonnato recipe: sliced marinated veal served in tuna sauce.
You can use capers pretty much everywhere: raw in salads, as a condiment on bruschetta or to prepare pesto sauces; you can also grind them and cook them to make sauces.
I love capers, because they have such a unique taste of salt and sea. My favourite dishes are Pantesca salad with boiled potatoes, tomatoes, red onion, olives, oregano and capers and the Pantesco pesto, with tomatoes, basil, parsley, almonds and garlic. The flavour of capers from Pantelleria goes extremely well with all other flavours and stands out with its sapid note.