Mallorca’s caper harvest started in July and will finish at the end of this month. As capers are ready for picking at different times, the harvest is split into a maximum of 12 weekly sessions.
The tiny caper grows in bushes close to the ground and getting it to our tables takes a huge amount of back-breaking work. As they have to be picked one by one, it’s one of the countryside’s most laborious jobs.
The caper, called alcaparra in Spanish, is the bud of a small shrub called Caparis spinosa and it grows wild all over the island. It is also cultivated and those from Llubí and Campos are considered to be the island’s best.
Capers are also grown in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey and Greece but all connoisseurs (excepting those in these five countries) agree that Mallorca’s capers are the world’s finest. The island was exporting capers to Germany in the 17th century, so their international fame goes back a long way.
A caper straight from the bush is like a freshly picked olive: it is not a pleasant taste. As with olives, it is the pickling process that brings out the characteristic flavour for which the caper is renowned.
Capers can be pickled in salt and water or in straight vinegar. For the traditional water version, salt is dissolved in water until a fresh egg floats on top. The capers are put into sterilised jars, covered with this brine and kept for three or four weeks. When capers are needed they are extracted, put into a small bowl and covered with vinegar for an hour before using them.
Some Mallorcans prefer to pickle the capers in neat vinegar, with the addition of salt to taste. Only the best wine vinegar is used and it must be a strong one. The capers need a minimum of of two weeks in the vinegar before they can be eaten.
Capers come in several commercial sizes and the smallest are the most expensive. The bigger they are, the cheaper they become.
Mallorcan growers divide capers into six types and each has its own name: nonpareilles (measuring 7mm or less), surfines (7-8mm), capucines (8-9mm), capotes (9-11mm), fines (11-13mm) and gruesas (over 13mm).
The tiniest capers are the best — and and you will always pay a good deal more for them. But you get a great deal in 100 grs and as they are used mainly as a garnish they go a long way.
The gruesas, the largest of the lot, cost less than the others, but they lack the sharp flavour of the smaller ones. But when a recipe calls for capers to be chopped or mashed and mixed with ingredients such as anchovies and black olives, it makes economic sense to use the large gruesa variety.
You should buy your capers loose at stalls in the Mercat d’Olivar and Santa Catalina market as well as at specialist shops and the olives counter at El Corte Inglés in the Avenidas. Do as the Majorcan housewife does: take an empty jar to the market, get it three-quarters filled and ask the stall assistant to top up the jar with some pickling liquid.
As long as they are kept submerged in this liquid the capers will last indefinitely. They must never be allowed to dry out and you mustn’t top up the jar withy fresh vinegar as this spoils the taste. If the capers are removed carefully with a slotted wooden spoon, there will always be enough liquid in the jar.
At market stalls selling loose capers you will almost certainly see alcaparrones: the fruit of the caper bush. They are larger than the biggest olives and usually come with a good bit of the stalk attached. They are soft, have a kind of seedy centre and a caper-like taste. Majorcans serve them at table as they would olives and they are frequently one of the side dishes with an elaborate pa amb oli.
You can use them to good effect as part of a French-style hors d’oeuvres, perhaps with thin slices of slightly piquant chorizo or Iberian cured ham (if the budget runs to it), the best green and black Mallorcan olives, some very good ripe tomatoes cut into wedges, canned tuna or sardines (the expensive brands) and some slices of Mallorcan pan moreno and with a virgen extra olive oil on the table — preferably a Mallorcan one.
It’s a good idea to have capers in the pantry throughout the year. They have a very long shelf life and their sour-salty taste will perk up many of the dishes in your daily repertoire.
Ideally, you should always have some of the smallest capers and some of the larger ones at hand. And when you finish a jar, don’t throw out the liquid — it is useful for adding a touch of piquancy to sauces and vinaigrettes.
Mallorcan housewives sprinkle a few capers on a salad of lettuce, tomatoes and onions and the difference they make is amazing. The tart salty tingle as you bite into a small caper is a memorable taste sensation.
Capers go well with fish and many Mediterranean recipes feature them in sauces. Salmonetes (red mullet) are sometimes grilled and served with a generous sprinkle of capers.
Most offal dishes are enhanced if you add a few capers. Try them with liver, either fried or braised, or with lamb kidneys. You won’t find many lamb’s kidneys at the markets but the meat section of El Corte Inglés in Jaime II usually has a tray or two on offer, with 4-8 kidneys cleaned and ready for use. And, of course, you can always order them.
This is one simple recipe that’s worth thinking about. Butterfly 10 cleaned lamb’s kidneys, securing them with cocktail sticks so they lie as flat as possible. Beat 100 grs of softened butter with two teaspoons of Meaux or Dijon whole grain mustard until well blended, stir in a tablespoon of sherry a few drops at a time. Add a tablespoon of finely minced shallots and two of chopped capers (the large gruesas kind will do) plus freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Spread this mixture on the cut side of the kidneys and grill them for about five minutes until they stiffen slightly but are still pinkish inside. Remove the cocktail sticks and arrange the kidneys on a suitable hot serving dish. Pour over the pan juices and sprinkle generously with finely chopped parsley. These kidneys don’t need any kind of garnish except, perhaps, a slice of good bread of your choice.
The most famous Mallorcan dish with capers is lengua con alcaparras, or tongue with capers. You will find it in most restaurants that specialise in Mallorcan cooking, but it is easy to do at home and it is a good way of using the ox tongues that are readily available at the Mercat d’Olivar and El Corte Inglés.
You need an ox tongue (lengua de ternera) that has been well cleaned — get it from El Corte Inglés and ask them to clean and prepare it for cooking. Majorcan cooks I know prefer to bake it in the oven because it is always tastier that way. Tongue can be boiled but it always loses a good deal of its taste to the water.
The prepared ox tongue is rubbed generously with lemon juice and salt, coated with flour and quickly fried in virgen extra olive oil in a greixonera just big enough to hold it. When the tongue has browned on all sides, take it out and in the same oil sauté three chopped onions, the white of two leeks, three chopped medium carrots and two large tomatoes.
Season this mixture with chopped garlic, bay leaves, paprika and fresh herbs of your choice.
Put the tongue back into the greixonera and add two glasses of white wine or sherry and a glass of brandy.
Cover the greixonera and bake in a low oven for two to three hours, until the tongue is tender. The actual cooking time will depend on the size of the tongue. Test it with a darning needle after two hours.
Take the tongue and the bay leaves out and blitz the contents of the greixonera in a blender. If the sauce is too thick, stir in a little stock to thin it. At this stage you can also add grated nutmeg to taste and extra chopped fresh herbs.
Slice the tongue about one centimetre thick, arrange the slices on an ovenproof serving dish, pour over the sauce and sprinkle small capers to taste over the surface. Pop it into the hot oven for 10 minutes.
Most Mallorcans I know serve lengua con alcaparras on its own with pan moreno, but it’s also rather nice with deep-fried Mallorcan patató or some creamy mashed potatoes.