Capers!By Hannah Robertson
March 20, 2019
Two standout dishes from our trip to Italy : a roasted filet of fish, atop a puree of potato and olive oil, amalgamating with the juices of the fish and a pop of three or four salty green capers. Handmade pillows of potato gnocchi, filled with codfish, and lightly sauced with a fresh tomato, caper, and olive oil sauce.
The humble caper: a pantry staple in Italian cuisine from the famed puttanesca sauce, to the surprise burst of personality in tonnato sauce for vitello tonnato, and the salty note in sweet and sour caponata. In Italy this Spring I was reminded of the foundational flavor of capers as I savored them more often than expected. Their briny green-ness was a wonderful contrast to rich fishes in olive oiled sauce, roasted cheese-grained vegetables, and a perfect compliment to wines with bright minerality like Fiano in Campania and Pecorino bianco in Abruzzo.
While “ritrovar”-ing capers in many delightful lunches and dinners, we coincidentally mentioned to our Siclian suppliers that we were looking to source capers “from a place”. Recently we had noted that our existing source no longer designated “of Salina” or “from Pantelleria” (of the famed but tiny Sicilian Eolian Islands) on his label. And perhaps after importing them for so many years that seemed not illogical, given the good price we had been receiving and the fact that our supplier was from northern Italy. Other friends in Italy noted that on the open market cheaper capers from north Africa had long supplanted those from the micro-zones of Sicily.
I had to laugh thinking back to a trip to the Eolian Islands in the 1990s when we were walking through the back streets of Lipari. Almost from every doorway an apron-clad woman would emerge waving a transparent bag of salted local capers, of mixed sizes and plumpness. It seemed the capers had been hastily tossed in a bag to entice the nearest food-loving tourist. Some lira-per-100g price would be cackled out from the woman in a Siclian-inflected Italian accent and we city folk were expected to accept the offer and our treasure of local food culture. I am sure I bought a bag and set them in my refrigerator, not knowing then what culinary wealth had come my way.
All these years later, I admit I had come to see capers more as a commodity, of little interest in our Ritrovo pantry. Our customers loved them, so I did not scrutinize them as they flew out the door. Then one discriminating label-reader from among our supportive buyers noticed the absence of the Sicilian place name on our northern Italian supplier’s jar. I started to feel squeamish. Like we had been let down and were letting our knowledgeable customers down.
And so as we were savoring those caper-piqued dishes this Spring under the sun of Campania, at mid-day in Massa Lubrense, at a table of seafood in San Vito Chietino, our friends at Marino were plucking and salting their first hand-processed batch of local wild capers. Had they sensed Ritrovo’s need from across the Mediterranean Sea?
Suddenly I started to see caper bushes everywhere we went: on castle walls, on abandoned stone perimeters, pushing out from abandoned rock piles. I had always loved their tufted pink and white flowers and thick, plate-like leaves. Now that I was seeing them pop up on the land and on my plate I understood how these little buds, once salted, become like the mythical Italian salted anchovy: a wild-foraged food that could become a flavor burst on a peasant plate.
On those same days Katia from Marino Farms was sending me photos of the picking and salting of their first ever batch of capers.
Apparently the demand for locally made capers from a true Sicilian source was a cry she was hearing not only from Ritrovo but from other customers as well, so she and her family had decided to try their hand at it. In the dry, rocky climate of the Iblea mountains, capers are a natural. Marino was already adept at drying and preserving other dry lands wild plants like fennel and bay leaf, so why not capers?
Marino capers, like the dishes we tasted on our recent Italy trip, bring this raw material to life. With their freshness of green peppery flavor, toothy crunch, and vibrant herbaceous notes, they are now a centerpiece for a dish rather than a pallid background. Already we are tossing them into chilled riso Nerone Summer rice salad, and plunking them in chunky tuna salads.
We invite you to try them all summer long! Buon appetito!