The phenomenon of caper white butterflies heading south from west of the Great Dividing Range in Queensland and New South Wales every six to 10 years, and even out to sea as far as Adelaide and Tasmania, is one of Australia’s great natural wonders (the most recent migration was 2016). These butterflies originate on our native capers.
The capers in our kitchens are closely related, and unlike the butterflies, express humility in their form. Indeed, they celebrate their humility. The most expensive capers are often the smallest. Unsurprisingly, if you stop to think about it, the cost of picking the smallest capers, say less than 5mm in diameter, far exceeds the cost of picking the largest capers. And there’s also a view that the smallest have the best flavour. Of course that assessment’s up to you – the largest capers, exceeding 15mm, have their own flavour and superiority is in the scent and taste of the consumer.
Capers are about as aesthetically pleasing in a dish as an anchovy – hardly a visual ornament but nevertheless a visual cue to an unmistakable flavour. So you might delight in their presence while anticipating that flavour (assuming you like capers) or, if you have a botanical interest, enjoy distinguishing these unprepossessing olive-coloured lumps (the result of salting or pickling) as flower buds. There are other flower buds that we eat – such as cauliflower and broccoli – but none as cryptic as capers.
Caper flowers are astonishingly showy – quite similar to boab flower if somewhat smaller – so worth growing as garden ornaments as much as for the edible buds. The plants themselves are incredibly tough and can survive with rainfall as low as 200mm. The edible caper is Capparis spinosa. Capparis (unsurprisingly classified in the Capparaceae plant family) includes about 225 species worldwide with 19 native in Australia and of interest to the caper white butterfly.
The edible caper may be the most important commercial crop but other species are important regionally. For example, Capparis mitchellii, the native orange, has a fruit that can grow to 7cm across. The tree grows to 6m and is culturally important to the Adnyamathanha people of the Flinders Ranges.
The singularity of a caper’s flavour, the beauty of caper flowers, their remarkable diversity ranging from climbers to trees, and their ability to grow in difficult situations (such as Turpan in the east of Xinjiang province in western China with a winter minimum of -290C to 480C) indicate why you might take capers seriously.
Brian Noone’s taken them seriously. The challenge of propagating plants and of selecting and developing an outstanding cultivar (Eureka!) inexorably led him further and further into a remarkable exploration of the botanical, horticultural, culinary and cultural history of capers.
Noone has self-published an important, and very readable, story of this journey – a plant biography drawn by his explorations. The contents outline the book’s scope – the caper’s botany including biogeography, horticulture, consumption and historical and modern usage in medicine. For Australian readers the conspectus of native Australian species is up to date and invaluable.
However, the beauty of this book is in its approach and diversity – the caper’s cultural history extends to capers in art through to the carefully considered recipes that come from Noone’s connections including chefs such as Poh Ling Yeow and Simon Bryant. You might also choose to eat the caper’s fruit – the caperberry – and substitute these for capers in the recipes (the caperberry hummus recipe is immediately enticing).
This is certainly an idiosyncratic book but all the more powerful because of Noone’s passion. This isn’t a book by a dilettante – this is a book by someone who has worked with capers with open mind, heart and hands for decades, embraced a diversity of knowledge paradigms and literally had a Eureka! moment in the process.
Noone’s exploration of caper harvesting and processing in the Mediterranean region is a highlight. Here Noone has made a connection with growers, harvesters and processors and listened to their perspectives. These are real people in many cases making a meagre income from collecting wild capers from ferociously spiny bushes (two days of picking to collect 15 kg of capers). The photographs here are outstanding.
Noone’s contribution to the industry includes the Eureka cultivar – a thornless caper plant that produces rows of six to eight capers on one branch and is virus free – go to caperplants.com to buy plants. Eureka was registered with IP Australia under Plant Breeder’s Rights legislation in 2009 and is still the only caper variety registered with the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. His contribution is also this book. Noone acknowledges fellow South Australian Churchill Fellow, Ian Tolley – the Riverland-based colossus of citrus cultivation – as his mentor here – an exceptionally fine choice for a guide.
Brian Noone, Capers: from wild harvest to gourmet food
(Caperplants), 2016, $35