Capers from Pantelleria
Capers are the flower buds of a bush that grows wild throughout the Mediterranean, but the very best capers come from two tiny volcanic islands off the coast of Sicily - Pantelleria and Salina. Each claims that its capers are superior, and each has its own distinct cultivar (nocellae on Salina, nocellaraon Pantelleria) but both insist that salt-curing is the only way to preserve the intense floral flavors and firm texture of the delicate buds, totally destroyed by vinegar or brine-packing favored by other countries. I visited the caper cooperative on Pantelleria and winemaker-caper-grower Nino Caravaglio on Salina to get the Sicilian caper picture.
Caper plants are attractive shrubs with sexy, flamboyant, hermaphrodite flowers : four white petals that serve as a backdrop for dozens of skinny 1 1/2-inch male stamens, white at the base, coloring to reddish violet, with a pink-stemmed pistil and a green ovary in the center.
Harvested from May to August, the tightly closed buds are picked before the flowers are formed, packed in more sea salt and marinated in the brine they produce for around a month, then drained and packed in sea salt. Caper fruits, formed after the bud opens and matures, are cured the same way but are filled with seeds and don't have the same intensity of flavor as the caper buds.
To use salt-packed capers simply rinse them off or, to get rid of more salt, soak them in warm water.
Nino insists that the capers of Salina are better than those of Pantelleria but both islands produce first-rate products, worth seeking out since they last almost indefinitely. Look for salt-packed capers in gourmet markets, mail-order them from Manicaretti Italian Foods, or plan to visit Nino Caravaglio to taste his capers and splendid Malvasia wine.
Manicaretti Italian Foods, Oakland, California; tel. 510-655-0911, fax 510-655-2034.
Nino Caravaglio, via Nazionale 25, Malfa, Salina; tel./fax +39-090-9844368.
January 24, 1996