Although I use capers all the time, and thought I knew pretty much how they grow, even I ended up learning a lot.
Which I’m very happy to share with you.
Did you know that capers from Pantelleria are the only capers in Italy to have an I.G.P. (protected geographic denomination)? While capers have always been grown in Pantelleria, the 80’s were the real boom years. But when cheaper imports from Africa began to flood the market, local farmers ripped out their caper fields and began planting grapes instead.
Flash forward to today, when the quality of the capers from Pantelleria have been widely recognized and farmers have begun planting fields of the plants again. What makes the capers from Pantelleria so different is actually the soil they grow in. Pantelleria is a volcanic island, and the chemical and mineral balance of the soil results in higher levels of glucos caperina ( I didn’t make that up.) What that really means is a tastier, and slightly sweeter, variety of caper.
And yes, I said fields of capers. And this was the biggest revelation to me. I had always seen capers hanging on for dear life on old stone walls. They seem to thrive in hostile environments and sink their roots into the crevices between rocks in the oddest places. And they do grow all over the island, in the nooks and crannies of the ancient stone walls that form the cultivated terraces up and down the hills.
But in Pantelleria they also plant them in rows, in fields, in the ground, in the dirt. While this makes them marginally easier to harvest, it’s still back breaking work. The plants stretch out their runners along the red earth and begin to bud in May and continue to do so until August and the beginning of September. The capers that are harvested are actually the buds of flowers, so the plants are continuously harvested, every few days, with the little buds nipped off by hand, before a flower has a chance to form.
As long as the buds are picked, the plant continues to produce.
If the incredibly beautiful flower is left on the plant, then it turns into the much larger caper berry, or fruit. These have become very trendy lately but evidently it’s very hard to convince the local farmers to let their plants produce them. In Pantelleria if your caper plant has flowers, your reputation suffers. In other words, only a bad, lazy farmer would let his caper plant flower in full season. Too bad, since the few caper berries that were left to form were huge and looked wonderful.
Once they are picked, the raw, bright green capers are placed under salt for about 25 days. This allows lactic fermentation to take place, after which the now dark green caper can pretty much last for as long as you’d like. The little buds are constantly watched during this time, stirred and adjusted for salt so that the fermentation is just right. This is either done by the farmer himself, or else taken to a local capperificio to be salted, processed and stored.
Once cured, they are sorted into various sizes. I visited Bonomo & Giglio, which is one of the larger capperifici on the island. They even had a special machine that automatically sorted the capers into small, medium and large.
Small ones are the most prized, since they retain their firmness. They are the ones that get thrown in dishes at the last second to provide that caper zing, as well as a bit of crunch. The bigger capers are softer, since they have begun the process of turning into a flower. They get put into various sauces or pureed into pates.
What do you do with capers? In Pantelleria they go into just about everything, and I’ll be reporting back in with recipes later on in the week. (here’s a Greek recipe)
But for now, I just want to tell you that my very favorite thing I put in my mouth during the entire trip was a new product that we tasted at La Nicchia. Capperi Crocconti. Crispy Capers.
It’s everything you love about capers (and who doesn’t love capers) but crunchy. They’ve taken preserved capers and then dried them. The result? Healthy, vegetarian bacon bits. Or something like that.
I couldn’t stop eating them.
They also grind them up and make Caper Dust.
Don’t you want to sprinkle it on everything?
Anyway, you heard it here. Crunchy Capers are gonna be the new ‘it’ ingredient.
I tried a lot of products from La Nicchia and loved them all. You can find most of them here. And Gustiamo in the States carries their capers. The dried capers are so new, no one has them yet. But I’m sure if you contact La Nicchia you can get your hands on some (yes, I’m talking to you hipster pizza maker in Dumbo). I was also traveling with folks from Zingermans and Formaggio Kitchen, so here’s keeping your fingers crossed they show up there.
I was in Pantelleria as a participant in a learning symposium organized by Oldways, and sponsored by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, Sicilian Region; The Agriculture Department, Comune di Pantelleria and Fausto Luchetti.