Capers of Pantelleria: the salted flowers that grow among the island’s stones

Are you in search of the unique Mediterranean taste, of the essence of the sea, of salt, of land, of spices and warm wind which stuns the palate and then the heart?  If so, try the capers of Pantelleria. These small flower buds, which grow among the stones, including along the edges of the small laneways overlooking the sea of the Sicilian Island, are a concentrate of emotions. Delicious if served as an aperitif with Sicilian wines after having drained them of the residual brine, they should be stored in salt, in a glass jar, so they don’t dry. They are a very versatile food ingredient.

The smallest and firm ones are the best to eat raw: to garnish tartlets, to put into Olivier salad and rice salad, in starters like stuffed eggs, croutons with sardines, and stuffed peppers and tomatoes.

They are also excellent on pizza, to flavour pasta with olives and sardines, or with the “ammoghio pantesco” which is fresh tomato beaten with a fork and flavoured with chopped up parsley, oregano and basil.

The larger and softer capers are perfect in classic green sauce, tuna sauce and “pesto pantesco” sauce, based on raw tomato, olive oil, garlic, basil and chilli pepper, used to dress pasta and roasted fish or boiled meats. Another island specialty with capers is the very tasty "sciakisciuka”, a type of warm caponata with the addition of mature cheese and eggs.

Freshly picked capers are very bitter and inedible. The bush, typical of the Mediterranean flora, has a short woody trunk and branches which crawl earthwards; the fleshy and oval-shaped leaves are a dark green colour. The eye-catching flower is white, with numerous intense-pink stamens and violet hues.

This small wonder can be seen on the few spontaneous plants at road sides: the capers used to flavour food are the flower buds which still have to blossom. The plants, laid out in rows, are found a little everywhere. The dedicated zone of production is the southern part of the island which enjoys a warm climate and is lightly refreshed by the humidity of the sea.

The farmers pick them as soon as they sprout, because the smaller ones are also the best. They are stored in wooden or plastic vats, covered with coarse sea salt (equal to 40 percent of their weight) and stirred continuously, for ten days. The water released from the flower buds, with the dissolved salt, forms a saturated brine, which encourages ripening. The well-drained capers are then placed into another vat, salted once again (this time in the measure of 25 percent of their weight) and stirred for another ten days. At this point, drained of the residual brine and covered again with salt, they are ready to eat.

The capers of Pantelleria are delicious and healthy too. They contain vitamins and minerals, particularly sodium, potassium, phosphorous and magnesium, and possess tonic-digestive and diuretic properties because they are 80% water.  High in fibre, they are low in calories (23 per 100 grams) and do not contain cholesterol.

We reccomend a Mediterranean recipe, aubergine caponata, with capers of Pantelleria and Olio extravergine di Oliva Valli Trapanesi DOP (Extra virgin olive oil from the valleys of Trapani), made with Pomodoro San Marzano dell'Agro Sarnese-Nocerino DOP (Tomato San Marzano of the Agro Sarnese-Nocerino region) and with another Sicilian product, the green olives Nocellara del Belice DOP.