Capers feature prominently in Mediterranean food, and these versatile ingredients which add a distinctive sour/salty flavour, are actually flower buds of the Caper bush. Whilst the plant is cultivated in Italy, Morocco, Spain, in parts of Asia and Australia, in the Maltese Islands, the wild plant can be commonly found on garrigue habitats, rock faces, along crevices within walls, fortifications, and even in disturbed areas.
The Spiny Caper (Capparis spinosa, Kappar tax-Xewk) and Spineless Caper (Capparis orientalis, Kappar) are indigenous, present on the Maltese Islands before the arrival of man. These plants are closely related to the mustard/cabbage family, having a multi-branched shrub and shiny alternate leaves. The sweetly fragrant whitish flowers are produced in spring-summer, with long violet-coloured stamens, and a single stigma usually rising well above the stamens. It is quite fast-growing, reaching 1m in height and 2m in spread. While the Spineless caper is commonly found in the wild, the Spiny caper is rare in the Maltese Islands, and can identified by spines at the base of each leaf stalk.
This plant is well-adapted to thriving in the Mediterranean climate. The root system is extensive with the ability to extract waters and minerals from soils. The thick, fleshy leaves offer good storage for water, and less water is lost by transpiration.
If eaten right off the bush, capers are extremely bitter. Hence, traditionally caper hand-picking involved collecting the flower bud before it opens, then pickling and using in the culinary recipes. upon pickling in vinegar and/or salt, the intense flavour is developed since mustard oil is released from each bud. Its use in cooking dates back to 2000BC, where it is mentioned as a food in Ancient Mesapotamia stone tablets. In the first cookery book, dating back to the 1st Century, the capers are mentioned as ingredients.
It is also thought that capers have medicinal properties, with anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and astringent properties. The flowering of the caper bush is also ideal for pollination, since during this time, few are the flowers which are in bloom. The plant uses insects to pollinate it and birds to help spread its seeds. At The Cliffs, Capers are featured as accompaniments in several dishes, ranging from starters, refreshing platters and salads, and even in seasonal specialities.