I can remember my father being very excited when he found some caper bushes growing in the crevices of the wall of a very old church called San Giusto in Trieste (the patron saint) – my father never imagined that capers could grow so far north. They grow well in countries around the Mediterranean – Cyprus, Turkey, Greece.
I prefer to use capers preserved in rock salt rather than in brine – they taste like unadulterated capers rather than capers in vinegar. Salted capers need to be thoroughly rinsed, then soaked for about 30 minutes and rinsed again, but this will depend on the brand of capers – the easiest way to tell if they are still too salty is to taste them and then soak them again. Capers in the vinegar brine impart a particular flavour and are more acceptable in recipes where wine or vinegar is one of the ingredients.
They are extensively used in Sicilian cooking and Sicilians prefer the smaller capers. Good quality ones come from Salina (one of the Aeolian islands) or Pantelleria (an island, southwest of Sicily and closer to North Africa).
We now have Australian capers growing on the dry rocky slopes of the River Murray. Some nurseries sell the seeds or plants and they are being grown in some home gardens.
Apparently in some parts of Sicily, it is common to boil the leaves and the young shoots in salty water, then they need to be drained well, dressed with good quality olive oil and lemon juice and eaten as a vegetable.
The caper buds need to be soaked in water for at least 2-3 days (apparently they have some bitter taste, like olives) and then are preserved under salt or under vinegar.
Those of you living in Australia may remember how nasturtium berries used to be pickled in vinegar and called capers – we Italians knew better. Mind you, my family knew nothing about rhubarb. Our neighbours gave us some and we threw away the stalks and boiled the leaves to eat as a vegetable. Fortunately, because they tasted so bad, we did not eat them.