The caper (Capparis spinosa L., 1753) is a small shrub species whose buds, called capers, and more rarely the fruits, called cocunci, are consumed.
Origins and History –
The caper is a Eurasian plant, spread over a vast range that goes from Europe to Japan and has been present in the Mediterranean area since time immemorial and which grows in arid and stony places and is easily found both along the coastlines, marine and inland. .
In Italy, the area cultivated with capers is around a thousand hectares, distributed between Liguria, Puglia, Campania and island Italy.
Capers are a known and appreciated product since ancient times, they are mentioned by authors such as Dioscorides and Pliny. A hint of their virtues is even present in the Bible (Ecclesiastes XII 5). A seventeenth-century author, Domenico Romoli known as Panunto, in his famous culinary treatise “The singular Doctrine” states that “… those who will eat do not suffer from spleen or liver pain … they are against melancholy, they produce urine. .. “; the same author does not fail to mention alleged aphrodisiac virtues by adding that capers “fan lively coitus”.
This plant is cultivated in some areas and islands of the Mediterranean where today it also has particular economic importance.
In the archipelago of the Aeolian Islands it has been cultivated since time immemorial, finding in this context particular vigor and exceptional vitality, thanks to the particularity of the volcanic soil and the clearly favorable climatic conditions: medium wind, very low humidity.
Thanks to unique climatic and geomorphic conditions, the Aeolian capers are “naturally organic” since they do not require any treatment or fertilization.
Among the areas in which the caper is cultivated with particular interest, we mention the Capper di Pantelleria PGI which has globular, subspherical, rarely long or conical flower buttons, green in color tending to mustard. The smell is aromatic, strong and characteristic, while the flavor is aromatic and salty. The capers for the production of the Cappero di Pantelleria PGI are made up of the botanical species Capparis spinosa, Inermis variety, Nocellara cultivar. A percentage not exceeding 10% of other varieties is allowed.
In modern times, specific information can be found in the essay by Prof. P. Calcara “Brief mention on Geognosia and Agriculture of the island of Pantelleria” published in Palermo in 1855 on “The Journal of the Commission of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Sicily”. This work already underlines the economic and commercial value of the caper for the Pantelleria society of that time: “In the south coast of the island and on the arid cliffs the caper spontaneously grows, of which the poor collect the buttons in July and August before flowering , and sell them to a class of people who, after dividing them according to their size, press them in brine and vinegar and then put them on the market “.
In Pantelleria, thanks to the combination of volcanic soil and the warm and windy climate, caper plants have spread everywhere. Curious is a method used by panteschi to encourage cultivation, which consists in “shooting” the caper seeds with a blowpipe between the cracks of a wall or between the tiles of a well exposed roof. The capers before ending to flavor many typical dishes of Italian cuisine, are dried in the sun and then put with other ingredients, jealously handed down from father to son, in a brine in wooden barrels for about a week. Not everyone knows that this tasty green button is not the fruit of the plant but its bud. The experience and expertise of the farmers allows us to obtain an innumerable series of crops from each shrub.
For proper conservation, the PGI Caper of Pantelleria must be left in its natural state, under sea salt, avoiding the use of plastic containers. Before consumption, it is therefore necessary to remove excess salt, washing the product under running water. Capers are excellent ingredients of many typical dishes of Italian gastronomy, combined with pasta, meat and fish. Undisputed protagonist in Neapolitan and Sicilian pizza, caper is also fundamental in the preparation of spaghetti alla puttanesca, green sauce and “pantesco” pesto, together with tomatoes, oregano, anchovies and black olives. The islanders are used to preparing a particular frying of capers and potatoes, tasty and fresh salads, but also sauces with catmint, almonds and pecorino, to season the pasta.
The caper is a plant with a bushy habit, with immediately branched stem and lignified branches only in the basal part, often very long, initially erect, then creeping or hanging.
It has alternate and petiolate leaves, with a subrotate lamina and a whole margin, glabrous or finely hairy, with a fleshy consistency. The shape of the foil is ovate, the margin is smooth, the ribs are pinnate and it is not a compound leaf.
The flowers are solitary, axillary, long pedunculated, showy. Calice and corolla are tetramers, composed respectively of 4 green sepals and 4 white petals. The androceum is composed of numerous red-purple stamens, equipped with very long filaments. The ovary is outdated, with a sessile stigma.
The fruit is an oblong and green, spindle-shaped capsule, carried by a 2–3 cm peduncle, fusiform and fleshy, with a pinkish flesh. Contains numerous reniform seeds, black or yellowish, 1–2 mm in size. At maturity it opens with a longitudinal crack. The fruits are commonly called cocunci or cucunci.
Active principles –
The caper is a plant whose buds can be eaten while they are still tender, the flower buds still closed, collected in spring, and the small, elongated and spindle-shaped fruits called cucunces, detached from the plant in summer.
From the point of view of the composition, in 100 grams of capers we find:
– 83.5 g of water;
– 4.9 g of carbohydrates;
– 3.2 g of fiber;
– 2.3 g of protein;
– 0.8 g of fat;
– minerals: sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus;
– vitamins: A, K, C.
They are also very rich in beta-carotene and flavonoids, antioxidant compounds, in particular quercetin (capers contain more quercetin in relation to the weight of any other plant), rutin and kaempferol, and have a very low caloric intake: about 23 calories per 100 grams of food.
Properties and Uses –
Caper is one of the most used aromatic plants in Mediterranean cuisine and goes very well with meat, fish, sauces, omelettes and pizzas.
The edible parts of this plant should be eaten raw, adding them to the last minute preparations, both whole and chopped, since with cooking they lose aroma and sweetness and acquire a bitter aftertaste.
In addition to the flower buds, the cucunces and the tender buds, the roots are also used of this plant.
With the roots of the caper, healing decoctions are made, useful for the purification of the liver and intestines.
The main aromatic properties are contained in the flower buds, commonly called capers. Used in gastronomy for millennia, they are collected still closed and preserved in maceration in salt or in vinegar. Capers are usually used to flavor dishes and go well with a wide variety of foods.
The fruit, with a similar but more delicate flavor than the caper, is called cucuncio, cocuncio or even caperone and is sold commercially in salt, in oil or in vinegar. This is traditionally used in Aeolian cuisine to flavor fish dishes. Aeolians also use to desalinate cucunces or capers and consume them like any vegetable, usually in salads. In the culinary field, young leaves are also used as a salad, after cooking for a few minutes in boiling water.
The wide diffusion in Sicily and the traditional use that is made of it in Sicilian cuisine led the capers to be included in the list of traditional Italian agri-food products (PAT) of the Ministry of Agricultural Food and Forestry Policies (Mipaaf) as a typical Sicilian product .
The Caper of Pantelleria, as mentioned, instead obtained the protected geographical indication (PGI).
The root bark is used in herbal medicine. The active ingredients have diuretic and protective properties of the blood vessels. It can be used in the treatment of gout, hemorrhoids, varicose veins. An infusion prepared with caper roots and young shoots was used in folk medicine to relieve rheumatism.
In addition, the belief that attributes aphrodisiac properties to capers has been widespread since ancient times.
Much more than other foods, capers play an important antioxidant action, thanks to the presence of numerous flavonoids, with naturally beneficial effects on the metabolism of cholesterol, since they lower blood levels, and with an evident anti-inflammatory and antithrombotic action.
In particular, the quercetin of capers performs a chondroprotective action, i.e. protection of the joints. This is because it is capable of stimulating chondrocytes, i.e. the cells that generate cartilage and synovial fluid, and because they counter the inflammatory states deriving from inflammatory processes, such as arthritis and arthrosis.
Another precious substance present in capers, rutin, on the other hand, is supportive for the circulatory system, since it protects the circulatory system and is able to inhibit platelet aggregation, thus promoting micro-circulation. From this point of view, it is useful for regulating cholesterol levels, for those suffering from varicose veins and hemorrhoids.
Among the many properties of capers, it should also be remembered the presence of kaempferol which confers important anti-tumor, as well as anti-inflammatory properties. Without forgetting that this food stimulates the appetite, relieves stomach pain and flatulence, strengthens the immune system, brings benefits to the skin (moisturizing and photoprotective properties, with reduction of redness and sunburn) and boost the immune system. Capers are also helpful for those suffering from hyperglycaemia or diabetes, as they help reduce blood sugar levels. Finally, it should be remembered that fresh buds are diuretics and indicated in case of cellulite, couperose and acne rosacea.
From the capers you can prepare a cream that is also a protective for the skin.
As for possible contraindications, there are no particular ones but pickled capers should be avoided in case of gastroduodenal ulcer, while those in salt are not recommended for those suffering from kidney disease and hypertension. Furthermore, pregnant women and all those who have to undergo surgery have a moderate use, since they tend to thin the blood.
Finally, the consumption of capers is not recommended, but only in large quantities, in those suffering from hypothyroidism or goiter since the interviewee explains that glucocapparin, or the substance that gives the typical flavor to the caper, can interfere with the absorption of iodine .
Capers can be preserved in oil, in vinegar, but the most common type of preservation is the one in salt. Just use as much coarse cooking salt as there are capers, then for 500 grams of capers another 500 of salt will be needed.
It is good to avoid large, less tasty buds. Storage can also be long-term, if in salt or in vinegar: in the latter case, once the package has been opened, they must be kept in the refrigerator, where they also last for a year.
The pickled and pickled capers should be rinsed before use, while the salted ones should be soaked for about 20 minutes, changing the water a couple of times, then drained and squeezed.
The capers to be preserved in salt must be collected leaving at least a couple of millimeters of stem, then they must be washed, drained and left to dry for a couple of hours on a clean cloth. When they are dry, you can put them in the jar: firstly pour a layer of salt, then an equal one of capers and proceed to the brim, ending with a more consistent layer of salt than the others. The jar should then be stored in a dry place and can remain there even for a year. When the capers are to be used in the kitchen, they must be thoroughly rinsed to desalinate them.
The flavor of the capers is very strong and therefore they can be used to season the most varied dishes. They can also be used as a salt substitute. They are particularly good in sauces and sauces with which to season pasta, meat or fish. Indispensable in caponata, but also good in gazpacho, couscous, pesto, on focaccias and pizzas. They can also be used in arugula salads, but also in rice or pasta salads particularly recommended in summer. They go very well with tuna and black olives, with the latter, blending everything, you get a delicious sauce to use on bread or pasta.
Obviously there is no shortage of preserves that see them as protagonists like chillies stuffed with capers and anchovies, a typical product of Calabrian cuisine prepared with traditional techniques and – above all – with local products: the chillies used for this preserve are round, red and spicy, and are filled with a perfect mix of taste and salinity given by selected anchovies and capers.
The ideal is to serve them as a appetizing and tasty appetizer, accompanied by cold cuts, pickled olives, artichoke hearts and pickled mushrooms. They should also be tried with beef.
Warning: The information shown is not medical advice and may not be accurate. The contents are for illustrative purposes only and do not replace medical advice.