Buds on the burst
October 23, 2007 - www.smh.com.au


Caper crusaders … the short-lived Capparis spinosa flowers.

When I was young I would pick capers from my dish and put them to one side. Considering my interest in them now, my early dislike of capers might have been an issue of acquired taste but I think it might also have been because neither they, nor the medium in which they were packed, were of particularly good quality.

I first found capers to be irresistible when I came across the small ones imported from the Aeolian Islands near Sicily. These intensely flavoured, unopened flower buds of the caper bush comprise almost the entire food production of these islands, where the growers have formed co-operatives to market their capers worldwide. Caper varieties range from these exquisite tiny ones to plumper olive-green buds and, if packed in the right medium, they can add piquancy to an amazing array of foods.

The caper bush is an attractive plant that thrives in the Mediterranean region, where it can be seen, often straggling and vine-like, growing wild out of old walls, rocks and even piles of rubbish. About a metre high, it has tough, oval-shaped leaves and exquisite pink or white flowers that carry a tassel of long purple stamens. Sadly, the flowers hardly last but through summer the bush is green and succulent. It is a hardy plant that needs very little water to thrive.

There is a world of difference in the quality of capers brought into Australia - the majority of which are shipped in bulk in brine and bottled here. The most exciting thing for me about capers is that they are now grown commercially in Mannun, South Australia, by mining engineer-turned-farmer Jonathon Trewartha. He tells me it was one of the articles I wrote on capers during my four-year stint writing a weekly column on food for The Australian that inspired him.

Back then I threw out a challenge, questioning why we weren't growing capers in Australia when there were many areas with a similar climate to that of the Mediterranean. At the time we imported more than 100 tonnes of capers a year so it was clear that the demand was there.

I'll never forget the day years later in Mildura when those of us interested in slow food were gathered for the first time. We were sitting on my friend Stefano de Pieri's newly renovated riverboat to hear of his dream of the Murray becoming the "Slow River" and to hear other speakers on slow food, among them Trewartha, of the Australian Caper Company. When he and his wife, Samantha, approached me before proceedings began and gave me the first jar of salted capers they'd produced, I felt as if I'd won the lottery. Taking them home and finding out just how good they were completed the circle. I now only hope that this can be made into a viable agricultural pursuit.

The Australian Caper Company grows its capers organically on the dry rocky slopes of the Murray River near Mannun, combining ancient techniques with modern research.

The hardy caper bush, with a deep root system that uses very little water, is grown on land so degraded by salinity it could grow almost nothing else except saltbush. The capers are picked at first light every day throughout the hot summer months then cured in their own juices, repackaged in salt and sold that same season, ensuring they are fresher, firmer and more flavoursome than the imported product.

Then there is Brian Noone, a nurseryman formerly of Cottage Herbs in Angle Vale, South Australia. Noone won a Churchill Fellowship to study caper propagation in the Mediterranean, where he found his calling. Since his return, he has successfully bred a caper he's called the 'Eureka', protecting it with plant-breeder rights.

Noone has fielded interest in the plant from as far afield as Morocco, Israel and Syria. Other than the high-end position occupied by the Australian Caper Company, Noone feels it will be difficult for the Australian industry to compete with cheap imports of bulk capers because of our high labour costs and lack of access to the innovative and very expensive picking equipment used overseas. For more information on Noone's capers, see www.caperplants.com.

Deirdre Baum from Laharum Grove, near the Grampians National Park in north-west Victoria, started growing capers in 2006. Her plants are thriving and soon she will have more than 300 bushes sprouting up between rows of olive trees.

Caperberries, which are also now readily available, are the result of a berry forming when the bud is not picked for capers but left to flower - just like a rosehip. The oval, olive-green caperberry varies from the size of a small fingernail to that of an olive and is sold as a pickle on a long stem. However, the limiting factor with imported caperberries isthey are only as good as the vinegar and brine mixture in which they are sold.

Extract from Maggie's Harvest by Maggie Beer, published by Lantern, $125.