7.13.2019

The Great Caper Caper

The year was 2000. Together with several friends, we had rented a restored medieval watchtower/farmhouse in Fiano, Italy. You may recall The Night of the Shawls from the same trip.

The farmhouse we rented in Fiano, coated in star jasmine.
Our landlady’s mother, Mrs. X, lived in an ancient farmhouse a few paces away. As mentioned before, she was not accustomed to American renters actually cooking, or even being interested in the foodways of her country.

One day, she was out in the garden with her little dachshund, Artie Shaw, named for the jazz singer. I could see she was picking something from a cascading plant growing from a stone retaining wall, a prominent feature of that mountainous land. I went over to find out what she was up to.

Mark snapped this photo of caper bushes in Siracusa, Sicilia.
Capperi,” she told me. Capers. I immediately asked her how one turns them from flower buds into the little balls of flavor we love so much? “Seguimi!” she said, “Follow me.”

In her kitchen, she had a jar on the counter filled with a mix of vinegar, water, and salt. To this simple brine, she added a few caper buds each day. When the liquid was filled with the buds, she put it in the fridge.

Naturally, upon our return to the States, I insisted we get caper bushes (capparis spinosa) which I found, bare root, online in California. We tried growing them in Maine and they did fine till the first hard frost. Not the right place to grow capers.

After we moved to Tucson, I got another bare-root caper plant from the same source, San Marcos Growers. (This is not a sponsored post - they have no idea I’m writing about them!) For five years we’ve been enjoying the elegant blossoms. Now that the plant is thriving, for the first time, we are harvesting the buds and brining our own capers.

Below is the recipe for brining them and then a simple recipe (thanks to Stefano Arturi, Italian Home Cooking) for how to use them.

It’s simply the best caper I’ve pulled off in a while.

~ David

Brined Capers

1/2 cup mild white wine vinegar or herbed vinegar 

    - I used Kressi, a Swiss vinegar
1/2 cup water - I used spring water
1 tablespoon sea salt
caper buds


Mix the vinegar, water, and salt together in a pint jar with a tight-fitting lid, stirring until the salt is dissolved. Start picking caper buds. After you pick them, rinse and pat dry, then add them to the jar. They will be go in bright green, and will turn a dark, yellowish green by the second day. Seal the lid and keep in a dark, cool place. When you have picked enough capers to fill the brine, place the jar in the fridge. They can be used after 7 days of brining, but you may need to accumulate them longer than that before you’ll have enough to use.

For a recipe beyond the familiar chilled salmon with capers, here is a high-flavored but comforting 19th-century British hors d’oeuvre or snack, with the charming name: 


Scotch Woodcock
From Stefano Arturi,
 Italian Home Cooking 

Per person:
1 slice homemade bread
softened unsalted butter
salt
freshly ground pepper
1 egg
2 anchovy fillets 1 teaspoon capers, drained

Toast the bread.  While it is toasting, scramble the egg in a generous amount of butter, seasoning it lightly with salt and pepper.

When the toast is done, butter it generously and top it with the scrambled eggs, then crisscross the eggs with the anchovy fillets and sprinkle with capers.



46 comments:

  1. This makes me want to grow capers too! Thanks for sharing, David.

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  2. Do capers grow on the coast? I would love to have a bush.

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    1. Gerlinde - the are salt/marine tolerant so I think you’d have a good shot at growing them. The San Marcos Growers site says that if olive trees grow where you are, capers will grow.

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  3. What delightful memories this brings forth ! When I arrived here in Australia as a child almost all of the cooking was Anglo-Saxon and this dish was well-known and considered quite sophisticated - I mean who ate anchovies :) ! Love both capers and the fish so that will soon constitute breakfast !! And your story of the caper bush is such a lovely journey now come to fruition . . . have to see whether we can grow them . . .

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    1. Thanks, Eha! I had never heard of Scotch Woodcock before - glad it brought back memories for you!

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  4. May I add a fun fact just found on the site of one of our biggest plant suppliers: Cleopatra supposedly was successful in seducing both Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar because she copiously tempted both with capers ! 'That was a good caper' as was written on the page :)!! (No go for me: too wet!)

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  5. lovely story, beautiful flower (I had no idea), lovely things... I love them: bravo davide
    stefano

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    1. Thanks, Ste - it has been a fun journey, and I am really grateful to you for the introduction to Scotch Woodcock! Now a favorite of ours!

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  6. I so enjoyed your telling of the great caper caper. What fun enjoying your own private caper bush. The blossoms are lovely, but I bet the capers are even better.

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    1. Ron - the capers have a much fresher taste! So good!

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  7. Wow, I love reading about your amazing vacations in Italy, David! Where do you find these incredible places to stay?! I really love capers and it's inspirational that you brine your own from your garden these days. I need to nurture my sad, not-so-green thumb and put some thought into my dream garden. I wouldn't have thought of adding a bare-root caper plant on my own. Also, that open-face sandwich with eggs, capers and anchovies looks totally delicious!!

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    1. Thanks, Marcelle - nowadays, we find our beautiful rentals on Airbnb! We have had great success with them. I am sure you can grow capers and they would love the Texas humidity!

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  8. What interesting information about growing capers! After viewing your photos, I'll definitely have to put Italy on my'bucket list'!

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  9. i just love love capers and caperberries and caper salt... how marvellous to grow and pickle your own. lucky you! or should i say clever you. cheers sherry

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    1. Ooh - I have never had caper salt! I am intrigued! Thanks, Sherry!

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  10. David, I love this story of how you learned how to do this. Beautiful farmhouse and countryside. I knew capers were the buds of flowers but this is the first time I've seen the actual flower. It's so pretty! I adore capers and your recipe for this toast with egg sounds amazing! This is so up my alley.
    On another note, I was at Anthropologie today and thought of you as I looked through the measuring spoons and cups. :-) ~Valentina

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    1. Doesn’t Anthropologie have the best kitchen stuff? So hard to go in and NOT come out with something!

      I hope you enjoy the Scotch Woodcock! It has become a fast favorite in our house!

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  11. How bloody cool is that?! I've never even seen a caper plant, but that means I can grow them? I wonder if they'll succumb to Mother Nature just as everything else I'm trying to grown does, though. I'm really getting disheartened in the gardening department, but so happy that you are able to brine your own capers! That's awesome!

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    1. Christina - when you see caper plants in Italy, they seem to thrive in negligence, so I am sure you could grow them!

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  12. Dear, dear !I am still smiling .... I started with pickling myself yesterday although the vinegar and water ration is a bit different. Great, just great post, David !

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    1. I would love to know how our brines differ, Davorka!

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    2. Hello David ! I use more vinegar since it is not that strong as the store bought one. This one is homemade by the ladies having orchards and making apples or grapes vinegar at home...

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  13. We love capers, and were totally surprised the first time I realized what the plant looks like. However, they were not flowering at the time. Thanks for sharing your beautiful photos.

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    1. Thanks, Carolyne - do you ever see them in the desert? (I am sure you won’t see them in Canada!!)

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  14. What a lovely story, I'm so glad you managed to grow your own capers in the end! And what a great recipe to celebrate them.

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  15. Being able to grow your own capers, now that's a real dream! Maybe someday when I retire to a warmer clime... I do love anchovies on buttered bread. I bet the capers add a nice touch. May try tonight..

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    1. Our first dream, Frank, was to be able to grow rosemary year round. Once we had that, we realized capers were a reality we could achieve!

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  16. I have a caper bush too! I got it to make my own as you did. However. the yeeld is so hit and miss that I never accumulated enough to do much pickling. You landladies method would probably work for me too. I just never thought of it. GREG

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    1. I am sure her method would work for you, too, Greg - it is so easy and I am so glad we are doing it!

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  17. This is so much fun! How neat to grow your own capers. I doubt if they'll grow here (summer would work, but way too cold in the winter), but I'll have a whole new appreciation for capers next time I buy them (a pretty frequent occurrence -- love 'em). And although I've heard of Scotch Woodcock, never knew exactly how it was made. Now I do. :-) Thanks!

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    1. We were really pushing it by trying it in Maine - it gets cold in Tuscany, too, but i guess they needed more protection. That said, the jarred ones are quite good, and the Scotch Woodcock is a great way to use them!

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  18. David, I've had a life-long appreciation for capers but have never thought of growing and brining my own! And what a beautiful plant to enjoy as you gather your buds.

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    1. Whenever I see the plants flowing from the stone walls in Tuscany, it makes me happy. How something so wonderful can survive such neglect...

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  19. Dear David, what a beautiful place to stay at and what a great story about those much beloved capers!
    Lucky you! And thank you for sharing!
    Liebe Grüße,
    ANdrea

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    1. Thanks, dear Andrea - it was a lovely place to visit - I would love to go back!

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  20. Oh how I wish I could grow capers. I spotted them growing from old stone walls almost everywhere we travelled in Croatia on our last big trip, but sadly the icy winters where we've just moved to won't do them any favours.
    I guess I can only dream. So happy to see you harvesting!

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    1. Icy winters? Good thing you are young! ;) Still, adventures and changes are very good for all of us, John, even if it means you cannot grow capers!

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  21. How lovely to have your own caper shrub! They add such a great pop of flavor to foods. If you've had luck growing them in Tucson, I wonder if I could grow them here in Dubai?

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    1. I am so sorry Kelly - in my head I answered this question for you! Yes, I think you could easily grown them in Dubai - but they may need some misting and a bit more water than some desert plants.

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  22. What a lovely story! Alas another harvest that is never going to happen in Wisconsin! You are certainly the DIY master this summer!

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    1. I love my DIY days, Inger! And, no - you won't be growing these in Wisconsin. But the jarred ones are really good

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