It is generally considered that the smaller the caper, the better the taste. Larger capers, while cheaper, can be quite acidic and may overwhelm the very dish they are meant to complement if used indiscriminately.
Capers are the unopened flower bud of the capparis spinosa or capparis intermis bush, found in the Mediterranean region, especially France, Spain and southern Italy. The buds are picked before opening, then sun dried and pickled in brine, salty wine vinegar or salt. Capers in salt, like caperberries, have become more popular in the U.S. and Australia than in Europe. Once the salt is rinsed off, they retain a truer caper flavour without the addition of the acidity left by vinegar.
Capers are measured and described by their diameter in millimetres. The smallest, ‘lilliput‘, are 4-5mm, and what we call ‘tiny‘, otherwise known as ‘non pareilles’ measure 6-7mm, are the most highly prized.
Capers have been a culinary staple for over 2000 years, with evidence dating back to Greek and Roman times. In certain parts of the world they are even thought to have medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities. And while caperberries are often considered ‘poor people’s food’ in Europe, over the past few years they have enjoyed a meteoric rise in culinary appreciation in Australia and the U.S.
The salty, acidic taste typical of the pickled fruits can be an acquired taste, and it is worthwhile trying higher quality variants (such as those stocked by The Essential Ingredient) to enable you to sample them at their best.
Caperberries are the fruit of the same plant, more common in Spain and Italy than France. As with capers, their distinctive, aromatic flavour develops through pickling in brine, vinegar or salt. They are slightly larger than a grape, with attractive faint white stripes, and can be used and eaten in a manner similar to brined olives.
- An essential ingredient in classic sauces such as tartare, remoulade and ravignote.
- A traditional accompaniment to seafood, especially salt cold and smoked salmon.
- A piquant addition to Moroccan cous cous and tagines and other dishes containing mutton. Capers also marry well with lemon and garlic.
- An interesting addition to tapas or antipasto selection.
- Their less intense flavour and attractive appearance also makes them an ideal garnish for the Italian classic Vitello Tonnato and other specific meat dishes such as carpaccio.
- Caperberries can replace capers as an accompaniment to smoked salmon and other smoked or cured fish.