Visitors to our house are always surprised that at an altitude of 580 meters capers can still flourish so prolifically from our walls. But I tell them that in Himalayan Ladakh, India
, caper plants can grow at heights above 3000 metres.
It’s usually quite difficult to grow capers from seeds, especially if you put the seeds in a crevice in your garden wall and hope that this will do the trick. The plant has a mind of its own and our own capers, most of which came with the house, just sort of happened. If you choose to try planting them use a nice stone wall in a sun-lit spot but sheltered from stormy blasts and with some dampness in it.Those are the qualities of our walls, even inner ones!
I am always divided as to whether to collect the caper buds ready for pickling or to wait a little more and enjoy the delicate caper flower in blossom. In the end it comes to a bit of both: enjoying the flower and delighting in the caper bud’s subtle flavour.
The caper bud is, indeed, a major ingredient for seasoning Italian dishes
. For example, spaghetti alla puttanesca
(literally “spaghetti in the manner of a prostitute” – is this what the oldest profession here give you for dinner if you are a generous customer, I wonder?) uses them to make its sauce.
There are variant ways of making the sauce: this is the one I use:
Chop garlic and anchovies and sauté them in olive oil. Add chopped chili peppers, olives, capers, diced tomatoes and oregano with salt and black pepper to taste. Reduce this mixture by simmering and pour it over over spaghetti cooked al dente. Top with a flourish of parsley.
Further uses for capers include the use of their leaves as a substitute for rennet in cheese-making. The leaves can also be pickled or boiled and used for salads or in fish dishes. If you know how to make sauce tartare then you’ll know that capers are an essential ingredient there too.
We are so grateful for our capers. In winter the beautiful plants seem to die and we worry a lot about them, especially if the season is severe, for capers are pretty prone to ice. But, just as they seem to have given up the ghost, they begin to show signs of life and eventually reward us with their lovely treasures in high summer.