22 July 2010

AUNTIE PASTA: The Island Caper

SARONNO, Italy - As I cook my way through this hot month of July, I realize I’ve gone through yet another jar of capers. While I don’t use very many of the little green buds during the winter, once the weather turns warm they seem to be just the thing to add to fish dishes, pasta and rice salads and other hot weather food.

Salina Island

Caper bushes grow wild all over Italy. I’ve seen them sprouting out of ancient stone walls in Tuscany, but they grow best on the rocky terrain found on the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily. Both Pantelleria and Salina are famous for their capers, but it’s only Salina that celebrates this little bitter bud with a three day Capers in Bloom Festival in June, La Festa del Cappero in Fiori.

The caper festival takes place all over the small 16 square mile island, squeezed in between the islands two extinct volcanoes. For about $6 you get a paper plate, a plastic glass and a selection of the best food the island has to offer.

Caper buds are harvested from the end of May through August. Picking starts in the cool of the morning, usually about 5 AM, in order to avoid the hot summer sun. The collected buds are taken to a warehouse where they are spread out on sheets of burlap and separated by size. Then they are packed between layers of coarse salt, where they “cured” for about a month, before they are bottled.

Harvesting Capers

Capers eaten on their own are not particularly good, actually they have very little flavor. But after they are cured, they develop that sharp, peppery mustard like taste that adds zip and zing to a lot of dishes.

If you have never cooked with capers I would suggest buying the ones packed in brine instead of those packed in salt. While they may not be Mr. Gourmet’s first choice the ones packed in salt are too salty for me no matter how long, or how diligently, I rinse them. The ones packed in brine just need to be drained, so they are easier to use. Once you open the jar, keep them in the refrigerator and make sure they are covered with the brine (or salt), otherwise they will dry out.

You’ll probably find two sizes of capers in your supermarket: small and smaller. They are both good. I recently heard that in some supermarkets you can also buy large capers still attached to their stalks. They may look more “gourmet” but truth be known the smaller ones, minus stalks, are better both in flavor and how they look in a finished dish.

Salted CapersWhile capers may not be on the top of everyone’s shopping list they have been used in Mediterranean cooking for thousands of years, going back to the days of the Roman Empire. Roman culinary expert Marcus Gavius Apicus (25 BC), who served under the Emperor Augustus, wrote about them in his cookbook. It would be difficult to duplicate his recipes however, as it is not easy to find peacocks and other Roman delicacies in the supermarket these days.

I did find, however, a very good web site written by Alberto Calascione. There is no profile so I don't know anything about him, but it is obvious that he is an Sicilian-American who is very much into his Italian roots, and very much into the food of that region. His recipes are easy to follow, true to the ingredients of Sicily and the islands, and they are written using American measurements.

So I thank you Signor Calascione for your dedication to the traditions and food of Sicily and for permission to link with your site. We are all the richer for it. His web site is: http://www.lacucinaeoliana.com/viaggio.html

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