Foraging Malta Capers
There are a few key foods that I associate with Mediterranean living. Capers is high on that list. So are sundried tomatoes, olives, olive oil and goat cheese. After two years of semi-patiently waiting, I got my chance to pick capers right off the capers bush! We met with one of my all-time favourite farmers, Tony Borg, who brought us to one of his places to cut the capers high up in Mellieħa. There is a very small window of opportunity to be able to pick the capers exactly when they are ripe and ready and now is that time. The capers bushes are trimmed in early Novembre and then they aren’t harvested until the end of Aprile into early Maggio. Following their harvest, the farmer also trims the bush once more in early Giugno so that the bushes will produce well the following year.
When we did our interview in Gozo for honey, we learned that the capers pollen is blue or violet in colour and that the bees forage for capers after 16.00 in the afternoon. For the first time in my life, I got to see a bright and fully bloomed capers flower on the bush. Tony could look into the flower and tell you where the ‘earring’ of the flower is and from that, the caper fruit will grow. The information that these lifelong farmers have on our plants and flowers is so far beyond anything I could ever have dreamed of.
The capers, once you know what to look for, are quite easy to recognise and pulling them from the branches is easy to do. Tony said that most people will look at the long branches and simply pull down grabbing all the capers fruits, but he disagrees with that way of harvesting them. He picks each one, one at a time, twists and pulls and drops it in the bucket. His eyes zero in on every little caper and he pulls with a speed and precision that only comes from years of practice. I had a more difficult time pulling them off without accidentally squeezing them and smooshing them.
Next, we went to Mellieha Homemade Jams, where Tony makes all of his jams and cans the capers and olives. Tony uses an old way to measure the amount of sea salt necessary to brine the capers. He said some measure 10 cups of water and one cup of sea salt or you can do it his way, by using an egg to test the waters. He placed in a plastic bowl a little bit of salt in the center and then balanced an egg on top. The egg remains in its shell. Then he slowly adds warm water to the bowl where the egg remains at the bottom of the bowl. Then he begins to add the sea salt to the water. He spreads the salt through the water with his hands until he sees the egg float up to the top. That is the signal that there is the correct ratio of salt to water. Once that is prepared, he simply pours the salt water over the capers just meeting to the top line of the capers themselves, not more water above. Then, he sprinkles over the top with salt and closes the container. The container is a rubber container. He will keep the capers in a dark place, under the stairs, for four to six weeks until he sees that the top of the rubber container has popped up from the center. From there, he puts the capers into the jars that he will sell.
Next time you’re looking for fresh capers picked, harvested and canned the way that it has been done for generations, think of Tony and Mellieha Homemade Jams!