Chicken piccata, a pasta dish, or on top of bagels and lox—many of us have tried capers in some form. Capers are the small ﬂower buds of the caper bush. Harvested and then pickled or preserved in salt, capers add a delicious, salty ﬂavor to your cooking. Though they are found throughout the Mediterranean, capers are perhaps most closely associated with the island of Pantelleria.
“Take a very small island in the Mediterranean, closer to Tunisia (only 37 miles away) than Sicily, add incessant wind and a mix of Italian and North African food cultures, and you have Pantelleria,” wrote Evan Kleiman.
Kleiman continued that Pantelleria is “a kind of artisanal caper central and the only place with a caper IGP or denomination of origin… and the abundance of the capers on the island is staggering. Especially if you consider that each little green ball starts as an unopened ﬂower bud that has to be hand-picked.”
Unlike the brine-packed capers commonly used in the U.S., capers from Pantelleria are packed in salt and have a delicate, almost ﬂoral ﬂavor.
My recent Oldways trip to Pantelleria… was pretty much capers 24/7. I think that I can honestly say that I ate the caper-based dishes Insalata Pantesca, Caponata, and Ciaki Ciuka at least twice a day, every day, for the entire trip.
Which was actually ok with me. And, if you want to know the truth, I’ve made them all since I’ve been back home.
Insalata Pantesca is more or less a slightly diﬀerent version of a Greek Salad. Basically, take out the feta and add potatoes, and you’ve got yourself a Pantescan Salad. Pantesca Caponata is diﬀerent than regular caponata because it is eaten warm. Also, it’s topped by toasted almonds, which make all the diﬀerence.
And, of course, the main seasoning in both these dishes is—since we are in Pantelleria—capers. Ciaki Ciuka is the oddly named dish that is pretty much the Pantescan version of ratatouille and was one of the few dishes that didn’t employ capers.
While capers have always been grown in Pantelleria, the 80’s were the real boom years. But when cheaper imports from Africa began to ﬂood the market, local farmers ripped out their caper ﬁelds and began planting grapes instead.
Flash forward to today, when the quality of the capers from Pantelleria have been widely recognized and farmers have begun planting ﬁelds of the plants again. What makes the capers from Pantelleria so diﬀerent is actually the soil they grow in. Pantelleria is a volcanic island, and the chemical and mineral balance of the soil results in higher levels of glucos caperina (I didn’t make that up). What that really means is a tastier, and slightly sweeter, variety of caper.
The capers from Pantelleria are considered to be among the best in the world. While you won’t be shopping in Pantelleria, you can ﬁnd them online at Zingerman’s, Casa de Case, and Gustiamo, among others, or even your local specialty food store.
Try a Recipe from Pantelleria
Ciaki Ciuka (Pantescan Eggplant-Potato Salad)