We haven’t looked at capers yet, have we?
Generally speaking, when people learn about capers, they begin and end with this: capers are the bud of a flower and they’re brined. But there’s a lot more to be said about these little marvels, and you’ll find that the more you know about where capers come from, the better you’ll be able to cook with them.
And while we’re on the topic, capers are the subject of one of the most enduring myths of the culinary world that I’d like to do my part to dispel. But we’re not quite there yet.
So, let’s start with the familiar. Yes, capers are the bud of a flower of the Capparis spinosa bush. If you didn’t pick the flower bud to make a caper out of it, it’d turn into a bright white-and-sometimes-purple flower like the one you see above. Eventually, that flower falls off, and a fruit grows in its place; that fruit is sometimes picked and brined and sold as a “caper berry.”
You’ll find lots of sources that will, at this point, say something to this effect:
|“Remains of wild caperberries and seeds have been found in prehistoric sites in Iraq, while the first record of capers was in the forty-seven-hundred-year old Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.” — Gil Marks, Encyclopedia of Jewish Food|
|“Capers grow wild in poor soil and full sun, needing no fertilization but good drainage. They have been enjoyed for a long time, judging from their appearance in the Sumerian epic ‘Gilgamesh,’ which was found inscribed on stone tablets dating from 2000 B.C.” — Jeannette Ferrary, “California’s Answer To Too Few Capers,” The New York Times|
|They are mentioned as a food in the epic, “Gilgamesh”, an ancient repetition of the flood story, similar to that in the Old Testament, which was etched on Sumarian clay tablets about 2700 B.C. — Carolyn Tytler, “What Are Capers,” Culinaryarts360.com|
Y’know, there’s a word for people who repeat this kind of thing.
See, here’s the thing. The story of Gilgamesh (only a portion of which is about the flood, and more broadly is about a man who is part God learning humility and how to come to terms with mortality) was recorded on a series of clay tablets (not stone–sorry, Times) in Mesopotamia, with some portions dating to the 18th century BC and some dating to the 13th or 10th century BC.
Because of their fragmentary nature and the way names changed over time, different scholars have pieced them together differently over the years, with some choosing poetry to fill in blanks, and others using flowery language. But as far as I can tell, nothing remotely connected to anything purporting to be a translation references with any specificity any food or ingredient of any kind.
Cover of 1961’s Gilgamesh: Man’s First Story by Bernarda Bryson. The only place where caper buds seem to appear in the story.
In fact, the only mention of capers shows up in the 1961 edition written by Bernarda Bryson. Which is not a translation of any kind–it’s a storybook retelling, for children. Bryson did not represent it as a translation and would not have done so; she was an illustrator and storyteller and was interested in invoking images.
Another clue to the inauthenticity of this origin is the actual context of the mention. Bryson clearly looked up the flora of Iraq but not the steps involved in their culinary preparation to create this sentence, describing gifts collected by a savage wild man, Ekindu, to give to a woman who seduced him:
He brought her gifts all the things that he had come to know and love in the forest and from the open steppes; wild cucumbers and cassia melon, grapes and figs and caper buds from the dry rocks.
There are a number of problems with this concept. First, Ekindu at this point in the story is a beast who lives without clothes and who is treated by the other beasts of the forest as one of their own. Presumably, like any beast of the forest, he was well aware that all parts of the caper plant are inedibly bitter until they’re cured or brined, just like olives.
Collecting raw caper buds to give as a gift to your lover would be an astonishing commentary on their performance.
Equally significant is that the caper bud would be the least likely portion of the plant to be used at the time. While the caper plant was well known to the ancient world, it’s a curious quirk of culinary evolution that the portion we’re most likely to use today wasn’t on the menu until Europeans got involved.
Depending on which translation you want to believe, the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, written in the 3rd century BC, mentions the caper berry, and contemporary Talmudic principles dictate the use of every portion of the planet except the bud–a peculiar omission if the Assyrians were using the bud in the 13th century, given that there were certainly Jews of Assyrian descent around.
So yeah, Gilgamesh’s everlasting legacy stops short of capers. And let’s talk about those capers. For one thing–what do they actually taste like? You’d probably say, well, salt. Or brine. Or vinegar. Or, “like olives.” And all of that’s sort of true, usually, because you’ve been told to go out and find the smallest possible capers, usually labelled “non-pareil,” French for “without equal,” or “matchless.”
I would like you to consider the following ideas with an open mind. Please read through all of them and think about them overnight before posting in angry defense of the jar in your fridge.
You have not been told the real truth about capers and have been buying them for years based on a regional French theory about what food should taste like, even though most of the time you aren’t using them in regional French dishes. It’s like going out and buying soy sauce based on the best soy sauce advice you could get in Kentucky: it’s not an outright lie, exactly, it’s just a lie almost all the time.
Capers start out life, like olives, as being knots of intense herbal and floral flavors overwhelmed by bitterness. Like olives, salt and brine tame that bitterness. When cured carefully and with a steady hand, capers can take on almost as many nuances as an olive, including notes of nuttiness, or smoke, or even hints of butter or wood. They aren’t supposed to taste like sopping wet bombs of salt.
One obstacle in preserving these flavors is that capers have the least flavor when they’re picked the youngest. Guess which capers are the smallest?
Another obstacle is that brining methods tend to draw out a bit more flavor than dry salt-curing methods. The dry methods are more expensive to purchase because the salt has to be stirred regularly to ensure even coverage, but the result is that the natural flavor of the caper intensifies, rather than having it replaced by vinegar. And guess which one you’ve been told to buy?
The only element of truth to what they say about non-pareil capers is that, yes, the larger capers can have a bit of a less regular texture, because the flower has started to take shape inside. I don’t find that to be particularly off-putting in most applications, and the dry curing does firm it up quite a bit. Plus, you’re free to chop the larger caper into whatever size you want when you’re using it.
So the oft-repeated advice about capers is little more than a self-fulfilling prophecy designed to keep you buying lousy capers: that you should buy small capers packed in brine because they’re so very salty and vinegary and who would want a big version of that? It’s a bit like telling someone they should always eat hamburger, because steak is just a chewier version of hamburger, and who wants a chewy hamburger?
Compare the recipe here to Yesterdish’s pork medallions in lemon and caper sauce.
From a box sold in Nampa, Idaho.
Breast of Chicken With Capers
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, about 1-1/2 lbs.
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 tsp. paprika
2 Tbsp. butter
1/4 c. finely chopped onions
1/4 c. dry white wine
2/3 c. heavy cream
2 Tbsp. drained capers
Sprinkle chicken on both sides with salt, pepper, and paprika.
Heat butter in heavy skillet and put in chicken. Cook over medium heat about five or six minutes on one side, turn and cook two minutes and scatter onions around chicken.
Cover closely and cook over low heat about 8 minutes. Transfer to warm platter.
Add wine to skillet and stir to dissolve brown particles that cling to bottom and sides.
Cook until most of wine evaporates.
Add cream, capers, salt, and pepper. Bring to boil over high heat and add any juices that accumulate around chicken.
Cook, stirring, until reduced to about 3/4 cup. Spoon sauce over chicken and serve.