Latin name: Capparis spinosa, capers, thorny butterfly
Also see Pickled Nasturtium Pods or Seeds, ch. 2.12.3.
Every day, I pass wild gardens thriving in the old walls of my town. In late winter and spring, the succulent green disks of navelwort vie for place with pellitory of the wall, dandelions, pink cyclamens, and sometimes small, flowering almond trees. The wild mustard seeds itself willingly between the stones and doesn't mind the proximity of white veronica, henbit, or the lovely, and poisonous, henbane. These, and other herbs make their appearances on the town walls over the weeks of our short rainy season, making a rich display to marvel at every year, regretfully to be saluted as the days once more lengthen into summer. After a few really hot days, the tender, moist vegetation dries, shrinks back, and disappears.
By mid-June, Tsfat's walls are adorned with skeletons of the henbane, still elegant, although dusty brown where their springtime yellow and purple enticed the eye before. Seedlings of figs entrench themselves between the cracks, and the pellitory, far less lush-looking than in spring, still clings, holding its own against the dry heat. A welcome visitor to town and field now is the prickly, but extravagantly beautiful caper bush.
Capparis spinosa is an edible weed of the Capparaceae family, with a history stretching back to Pharaonic times. Tightly rooted in its wall crack or rock crevice, it bushes out gallantly during the most arid months of the Mediterranean summer. Small buds, closed tight as fists, spring daily from the long shoots, opening eventually into exquisite white flowers with violet pistils and stamens; they look like butterflies at rest. The small, thumbnail-shaped leaves descend the reddish stem at short intervals, armed at the joint with subtle, small hooks which discourage grazing animals; it's known that not even a camel will eat the caper. Caper fruit resembles a small cucumber hanging down, and may be also be pickled, after having been soaked. An innocuous red shoot, thrusting out from some crevice in the sidewalk, may become quite a large bush which will catch at your clothing with its thorns as you pass by.
The literature on the subject of capers is most concerned with its rubefacient (skin-irritating) property, as the plant yields isothiocyanates, or mustard oils, upon being crushed. That's probably another reason grazers stay away; I myself am prepared to come home with hands pricked and stinging from a caper-picking expedition. Folk medicine, however, knows the fruit and tender tips to be alterative, astringent, diuretic, expectorant, and carminative. (With regard to the last, on searching through the Net for pages relating to capers, I found a Portuguese site devoted entirely to plants which relieve flatulence, where capers were among herbs mentioned.) Some cultures consider capers a specific for rheumatism. A Maltese study suggests that the presence of the flavinoid rutin makes the caper a valuable medicinal herb, as it “improves capillary function” (Rita Spiteri, University of Malta).
I also saw mention of an experiment with guinea pigs who had been sensitised with a variety of animal and vegetable allergens. Those treated with a preparation of caper root survived, while those who went untreated died of shock (Khakberdyev et al., 1968).
Other edible capers are: Capparis corymbifera, C. decidua,C. mitchellii, and C. sodala. These are capers harvested locally and not exported. Known best as a culinary herb, Capparis spinosa's pickled buds are a gourmet item whose cost is justified by the laborious and painful process of hand-picking. The smallest buds, viewed as the choicest, are the most expensive. (Large buds are those which are close to blooming, and could become mushy in the pickling process.) Despite this, a new, giant variety is gaining popularity. It is known as the caperberry, and can be substituted for olives in many recipes. Spain and Africa supply most of the world's pickled capers, although they are cultivated (or grow wild) all along the Mediterranean through Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. In effect, climates where olive trees thrive are those good for capers. Rarely is the caper found in the United States, although parts of Florida or California are possibly suitable. It is known as an “exotic”: I have seen prices as high as $2.50 for five seeds.
Capparis has a family of an estimated 250 species. Here are ways to identify it in other languages:
French: prier, pres,
German: Kapper, Kapernstrauch
Italian: cappero, capperone (fruit)
Hindi: kiari, kobra
Ancient Jewish sources (The Bible and the Mishnah) mention capers as a titheable crop, giving specific Hebrew names to each edible part; buds, fruit and the tender new shoots. The Sages of ancient times compared the Jewish people to the caper for their ability to survive even after being cut down to the roots, and to thrive in the most inhospitable conditions. The Western Wall of the Second Temple in Jerusalem is host to seven species of herbs, the caper among them. Although henbane is the most common, when people ask, “What's the flower growing out of the Wall?” they mean the eye-catching white and purple flowers of the caper bush.
You have to be dedicated to pickle the caper. Harvesting it means bearing a certain amount of prickly agony. Tiny green buds appear daily on the bushes, which must be constantly monitored for new appearances. The small, closed bud with no streak of white on it is what you pick, if you want a firm but tender product. For pickling the shoots, cut them into finger-sized lengths and peel them. If picked too mature, the fruit's seeds will be large and bitter, rendering it unpalatable, so pick only the smaller fruit.
Then your crop must be soaked for two days, changing the water once; this allows a flavorful fungus which is on the plant to develop (good cheese also needs fungus). Finally, get out your mason jar and cure the caper: any simple salt or vinegar pickling recipe will do. The flavor of the finished product will be piquant; bitter-sour. The walls of my small town in Northern Israel provide me with all the caper I have desire to pickle. Following, however, is an easy recipe using the capers you can buy in little jars.
Butter Sauce with Capers
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons lemon juice
¼ cup capers
½ teaspoon salt
Melt the butter, stir in remaining ingredients. Remove from the flame. Serve over vegetables or fish, or incorporate into mayonnaise to perk it up. Try stirring a small amount into cream cheese for super lox and bagels.
It's worth viewing this lovely flower –here are some photos.
Images of the Capparacea family:
Anyone living where the caper bush grows will know that the flower, once picked, is so frail as to almost dissolve in the hand. A beautiful way of enjoying the bloom at home is to pick several maturing buds (for this you actually want a white streak in them); put them in a glass bowl with water almost up to the rim. They will open like Japanese paper flowers and float there, reminding you less of butterflies than of water lilies. Put them in a sunny place –window ledge or table - to highlight their exquisite colors.