Thursday, November 18, 2010

Capers, Real and Not.

In yesterday’s post I mooted the idea that radishes must be due to become restaurant-trendy again, and also included brief mention of the use of radish seed pods as a substitute for capers. Now, I am pretty sure that capers themselves are staging a come-back. I feel sure they are sneaking up in restaurant dishes more frequently than they used to. If this is the case, will the mock caper return to the scene too?

The caper bush is a prickly shrub (Capparis spinosa) which thrives in the most unfertile-appearing locations. It grows in poor soil and in the crevices of stone walls and rocky outcrops, in the salty sea air in places where it is hot and dry such as the Mediterranean coastline.

Culinary capers are the immature flower buds of this bush which have been pickled in vinegar or preserved in salt. They have been used in cookery since the time of the Ancient Greeks, and became important to cooks in the cooler areas of Britain and Europe in the eighteenth century for the making of caper sauce, then an essential accompaniment to mutton.

The caper gets its pungency from the same components as are in mustard oil, and it is not to everyone’s taste. My favourite caper-quote is from Nora Ephron and appears at the end of the post, but here is another opinion from Encyclopaedia Americana (1830)

‘To persons unaccustomed to it, the taste of capers is unpleasant; but after a little while the palate becomes perfectly reconciled to it.

If one has become accustomed and thence reconciled to capers to the point where one must have caper sauce to one’s mutton, in the absence of the real thing one can, as we have learned, make a substitute caper. The most popular is made from the buds of the colourful nasturtium flower, but in addition to the radish buds mentioned yesterday, other plants can fake them too. I have found mention of the berberry ( Pepperidge Tree) and the marsh marigold, and in The Cook and Housekeeper’s Complete and Universal Dictionary, (1822) Mary Eaton suggests that ‘An excellent substitute for capers may be made of pickled green peas, nastursions, or gherkins, chopped in similar size, and boiled with melted butter.’ Mrs. Eaton also provides today’s recipe for genuine caper sauce:

Caper Sauce
Add a tablespoonful of capers to twice the quantity of vinegar, mince one third of the capers very fine, and divide the others in half. Put them into a quarter of a pint of melted butter, or good thickened gravy, and stir them the same way as the melted butter, to prevent their oiling.

In the absence of capers, one could presumably use one of the mock alternatives to make one’s ‘caper’ sauce. The other alternative would be to take faking it to a greater level altogether and serve the following:

An excellent substitute for Caper Sauce.
Boil, slowly, some parsley, that may become a bad colour, cut it, but do not chop fine; put it to melted butter, with a dessert-spoonful of vinegar, and a tea-spoonful of salt. Boil, and serve.
A New System of Domestic Cookery (1826), by Maria Rundell.

Quotation for the Day.

Nobody really likes capers no matter what you do with them. Some people pretend to like capers, but the truth is that any dish that tastes good with capers in it, tastes even better with capers not in it.
Nora Ephron.


Marcheline said...

My desire to dance and caper
Indeed begins to taper
When food with capers legion
Is served within my region

John S said...

That capers quote is awesome. Its true no-one likes them!!!

The Old Foodie said...

Hi All -sorry for the belated response, I always intend to get to them immediately, but am always on some deadline or othe!
I quite like capers myself, but agree that no-one is indifferent to them - you either like them or you dont.