The Caper Chase ( NYT)
Traveling to Aguilas in the Southeastern corner of Spain to learn how the caper finds its way from plant to table, I came away knowing how, but wondering why. Even as a lifelong fan who values the caper's sharp salinity in dishes of all sorts, I marveled, once again, at the trouble people go to for this tiny culinary adornment. Piquing appetites as far back as ancient Greece and Rome, the caper may indeed function as a digestive aid and an aphrodisiac, as old herbals suggest, but a dietary staple it is not - by a long shot.
Such were my thoughts as I stood ankle-deep in dust-dry, loose and stony soil, baking in the Hades of an unshaded field just outside of this small, sleepy seaside town in the Murcia region of Valencia. From the third week in June to mid-August, these fields come alive from dawn to noon and from 5 in the evening until sundown, as men, women and children pick the buds of the sprawling shrub, capparis spinosa. Most of the pickers work as freelance harvesters, receiving their pay at the day’s end in cash, says Antonio Jimenez Navarro, the general manager of Agrucapers, S.A., one of Spain’s largest processors of capers and other ”picantes” – pickled garlic, peppers, white onions and cornichons.
Squatting on their haunches to reach the low bushes, the pickers work quickly, moving from the tip of each spray (where the tiniest, most highly prized buds grow), through the larger buds that develop toward the core of the plant. They also work carefully, trying to bypass the rounded, silver-green leaves and not break the long stems that, if snapped, would produce no capers the following year. And because the workers cannot wear gloves for this delicate task, they try, most of all, to avoid the needle-sharp thorns that nature has protectively placed behind every caper bud. Speed is crucial, too, as each worker’s pay is figured by the number of kilos he or she collects – and anywhere from 10,000 of the nonpareilles, or smallest buds, to 900 of the largest gruesas are required to yield just one kilo. (Agrucapers processes a staggering 1,440 tons each year – a lot of picking, by any standard.)
”Each year, it is more difficult to find pickers,” Jimenez says, ”because Spain is more prosperous, and we have unemployment insurance that many take instead of working in the fields.” He predicts that capers may well disappear as a crop unless labor is imported, a practice already being considered in Turkey, another big caper producer, although the largest grower, Morocco, still has labor to spare. In Italy, where capers were once an important crop, they are now harvested only in small amounts, primarily on the island of Pantelleria in Sicily.
Caper buds must be picked before their graceful, mauve-and-white blossoms open. Larger capers holding more developed flowers are softer and looser, and so do not retain the intense flavor or firm texture of the smaller ones. Once opened, the blossom’s pistil develops into a berry the size and color of a small green olive. The caperberry, picked with its stem, is pickled and served at tapas bars. Jimenez is also promoting them as a garnish for drinks like the martini. In fields reserved for caperberry production only, buds are never picked.
While some caper bushes are cultivated, most grow wild. The wild buds are tighter and firmer than their cultivated cousins, and their thorns, steelier, making the wild variety even more difficult to gather. Even if capers become extinct as a crop, the bush is likely to endure as a plant: It thrives on poor, unfertilized soil and takes nourishment even from bricks and mortar, enabling it to flourish on Roman ruins and on Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall.
But picking is only the beginning. Capers, like olives, are not really edible in their natural state, having an unpleasantly raw acidity. Once harvested, capers and caperberries remain fresh for only five to seven hours, so they are immediately placed in plastic drums of carefully prepared brine. Upon delivery to the processor, the capers go through a series of washings, re-brinings, fermentations and sizings through graduated holes in metal drums. Finally, they are packed in jars, the most classic of which are dark green, a color that prevents the contents from fading.
To judge the quality of capers, look for uniform size (which indicates that all are of the same quality), a firm, unwrinkled surface and, if visible, a bright, yellow-olive green color flecked with pinpoints of white. Once a jar is opened, unused capers should be kept in their packing brine, so try to save some of the liquid.
There are two opposing esthetic views on the use of capers. In some countries, capers are used to complement foods that are equally salty and piquant, such as the tapenade of France and the caponata and spicy pasta sauces of Sicily. Other countries count on capers to counteract blandness. Germans, for example, add them to the buff-colored sauce that blankets Konigsberger Klopses, the big, light, pork dumplings. In Denmark, the country with the largest per capita consumption of capers, the food is among the garnishes in the much-favored steak tartare. The English, too, top steak tartare with capers and add them to cream sauces for boiled meats, while the French dot glossy black-and-brown butters with capers to spoon over sauteed fish, brains, sweetbreads and the like. Cooks in Northern Italy spice the tuna-sauced veal, vitello tonnato, with these piquant rounds, and stir them into the pickle, parsley and garlic green sauce that anoints the meats in a bollito misto.
Back home in my own kitchen, still nursing a few minor wounds from my trek through the thorny brambles, I took a fresh nibble of capers to see if they were really worth the effort they entail. Biting into the coolly fragrant buds, feeling their seductive, mouth-puckering salinity and the astringency that spreads across the palate, I decided they are indeed worth considerable effort – as long as my exertion is confined to wresting a teaspoonful or two from their narrow-necked jars.
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