The caper plant is part of the Capparis Spinosa L. family and is a flowering shrub typically found throughout the Mediterranean. The buds of the caper bush have been enjoyed by man for centuries. Caper seeds were even found in the archeological excavations of the city of Tel es Sawwan, in Iraq, dating back to 5800 AC. Capers were known and enjoyed also by the Greeks, Arabs and Romans. In Italy, the caper bush grows wild along the coast and is cultivated on the islands of Salina, Ustica, Favignana, Lipari and Pantelleria. The Pantelleria variety was awarded IGP (Protected Geographical Indication) in 1996 and can be distinguished from other capers based on its intense flavor that comes from its high levels of glucocapparina, a protein compound found in the lava-rich soil of the Pantelleria.
Domenico Romoli, known as Panunto, wrote in his book Singolar dottrina, first published in Venice in 1560, that “people who eat capers will not have spleen or liver problems … and are unlikely to suffer from depression.” In 1853, Pietro Calcara insisted upon the economic value of capers for the island community: “The caper bush grows wild on the southern coast of the island and on the arid cliffs. The impoverished people collect the caper buds before they flower during July and August. The buds are divided according to size and sold to people who preserve them in brine and vinegar and then take them to market”. The most common variety of capper is called the Tondina and whose cappers are firm and high quality.
After the harvest, which begins during the first days of June and lasts through August, the caper buds are spread out to dry on sheets of cloth and selected according to size and ripeness. The capers are then covered with coarse sea salt and places in large containers called cugnietti or in tinedde, old wooden barrels cut in half. The cappers are transferred from one container to another so that the salt and the heat of fermentation do not damage the tender buds. After a month, the so-called “green tears”, also known as cocunci in Italian, can be eaten as an appetizer or used as a flavorful ingredient in traditional Sicilian recipes.