Seven small islands off the north coast of Sicily, a few miles from Taormina, have been the realm of capers for millennia: these fruits of a spontaneous Mediterranean plant, smaller than coffee beans, are much used in the kitchen for their unique taste and versatility. On the Aeolian Islands, capers are picked by hand, one by one, and covered with sea salt and later with oil. The same treatment is applied to the cucunci, the plant’s flowers: eating capers (even the tender leaves are edible) is actually a common pleasure here, a bit like eating salmon in Scotland or Alaska.
Capers play a major role in the local cuisine, from the first course to dessert: they enrich sauces, make meat and fish more interesting, and are excellent in salads and even gelato. One of the seven islands, Salina (the second-largest in the archipelago), produces the finest capers (a Slow Food product), much sought after by great cooks around the world. Salina capers have the most compact bud and last longer, up to three years. A Caper Festival has been held on the island of Pollara every year since 1990. A country fair with the sounds, flavours and smells typical of Southern Italian festivals, where every year the “caper god” unveils his latest food pairings.
What would you say, for example, to a pasta sauced with a soffritto of garlic, oil and chili flakes, cherry tomatoes cut in half, rinsed capers and blanched caper leaves? The simple sauce will make the cavatelli super-delicious – al dente cavatelli pasta pairs beautifully with this sauce. Every home on Salina jealously guards its secret recipe for caper salad. They are rinsed thoroughly and left to soak in water for a day. But some people blanch them in boiling water whilst others wash them in vinegar. Finally, they are dressed with olive oil and raw celery and carrots; or with oil, garlic, oregano and mint leaves; or with oil, garlic, parsley, raisins and chili flakes.
In Malfa, a small town on the island of Salina, young chef Martina Caruso presents us with two recipes. The first is caper salad as she learned to make it from her father, Michele, who runs the local hotel, Signum, with his family. Blend some of the thoroughly rinsed capers in a blender, adding herbs to taste, vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil until you obtain a creamy consistency. Use this sauce on fine potatoes, boiled and peeled, and then add the rest of the rinsed capers, mix well, and your salad is ready. The perfect match: a glass of dry Malvasia from Salina. Martina’s other recipe is caper pesto, ideal for thick spaghetti: blend the rinsed capers with almonds, oregano and thyme. With the last toss of the pan, add a couple of cherry tomatoes: a sprig of wild fennel, fried, can be used to garnish the plate for a gourmet touch.
Also in Malfa, one of Salina’s three towns, Anna, the cook at the Bar Gastronomia Malvasia, has invented an arancino (fried rice ball) filled with caper pesto. At Lingua, near the lighthouse, capers end up in handfuls on the best pane cunzato in the Aeolians, at Alfredo’s. Capers triumph in the kitchen of Ludovico di Vivo at the luxurious Capofaro resort (owned by the Tasca d’Almerita winegrowing family), where they accompany the caponata served with the Atlantic croaker. Finally, they even become gelato, and in the form of an infusion in a glass of vodka, even a cocktail, which is served at the Signum by bartender Raffaele.